A Lesson in Divine Accounting

Sermon from Matthew 14:13-21

In the Gospel of Matthew, we see that the disciples are receiving a series of lessons from The School of Jesus, learning what it means to be missionaries of his gospel and instruments in the hands of God to do his work in this world. They must first understand the power of God and the nature of his kingdom.

Lesson #1: Disciples of Jesus must have the Lord’s vision and the Lord’s heart for the Lord’s people.

This is in direct contrast to the self-focused and self-centered mindset of the secular leadership of the time, who used and abused others for their own gain and amusement. Alternatively, Jesus, the true and rightful king, gathers his people to himself and has compassion on them. The heart of the Messiah is for his people. He sees their needs, he is moved by compassion, and he heals them.

Several years ago, Willow Creek Church did a study called Reveal, looking at transformation in the people of God. They found the although God’s people were very busy, they for the most part were not being transformed. However, for the small subset of people who were living transformed lives, they discovered that those are the ones who had intentionally made Jesus the very center of their lives.

Lesson #2: Disciples of Jesus must have a vision for the power of Jesus and his presence among them.

In Matthew 14:15, the disciples encouraged Jesus to stop teaching and send the people away so they could go buy food for themselves. This was not an uncaring thing to think. They knew the people were hungry, and they had the right vision and heart toward the people. However, they lacked a vision for the power of Jesus. They had the King of the Universe in their very midst, but they did not see his power.

We often struggle with this same thing. We look at the world through secular eyes, which means that we have no spiritual basis for the way we look at things. We don’t consider God being in the midst of the circumstances we see around us. We leave no room for the power and the presence of God to work.

In this situation, the disciples rightly saw a problem, but they came up with a secular solution. Jesus would use this opportunity to teach the disciples to think beyond the secular, and this leads to the next lesson.

Lesson #3: If your vision is limited by your own power and resources, you will never see the power and presence of God.

Jesus’ solution of feeding this multitude wasn’t on their radar screen, because they were focusing on only what they could do in their own power. The way they phrased, “We have only five loaves here and two fish,” proves that they were not taking into consideration the unlimited resources of the Almighty.

The people of God have never had a resource shortage, but we always struggle with having a faith shortage. This is something that I personally have had to be taught by God over and over. An example:

When I was pastoring in Florida, our church hired an amazing professional organist, but we only had a little electronic keyboard for him to play on. So one of our faithful parishioners decided to begin her own campaign to raise funds for an organ, and she began the fund by donating $100 herself. When she gave that to me, I was so skeptical that I almost didn’t accept her gift. A mere $100 was so tiny compared to how much an organ would cost! However, she was so insistent that I took it. A few weeks later, I got an email that said, “Free organ. All you have to do is pay for the transportation.” We rented a truck with that $100, and we went to pick up a $100,000 instrument for free. Now this gifted musician that God sent to us was able to fully use his gift.

Isn’t this such a good example of this idea? Our vision is so limited by our own capabilities.

Consider Sarah, who laughed when she heard the prophecy that she would bear a son in her old age. The angel said to her, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). No, it wasn’t.

Consider King Saul, who believed it impossible that God could use the young boy David to bring down the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17). It wasn’t.

Consider the prophet Jeremiah, who initially resisted God’s call to be his prophet because of his youthfulness. He believed he was too young to carry God’s word to the people (Jeremiah 1:6-8). He wasn’t.

Consider the prophet Elijah, who had worked zealously for God but became discouraged, believing that he was the only person left in Israel who wasn’t worshipping idols (1 Kings 19:9-18). He wasn’t.

Consider Mary, who believed that it was impossible for her to bear God’s Son because she was a virgin (Luke 1:26-38). It wasn’t.

All humans have a tendency to limit God with age, experience, unlikely odds, impossibilities – all our own limited understanding of circumstances.

Jesus would teach the disciples that their calling must take into account the power of his presence. We bring to the Lord what meager abilities and resources we have, but he adds to it his own glorious limitless power. By faith, we allow him to use us as his instruments and martial the incredible resources of his kingdom.

As the Apostle Paul said:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

2 Corinthians 4:7

and

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 

2 Corinthians 12:9

The mighty power of God overcomes any limitation that we may have. Has the Lord God put a call on your life that you feel is impossible? Whatever it is, God must bring you to the place where you come to the end of yourself and allow God to multiply your limitations into overflowing abundance.

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Sermon on Romans 6:12-23

In this passage in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Paul is inviting us to explore the paradigm of the process of our sanctification—becoming who God has called us to be. He uses loaded terms that bear a different meaning to modern-day Americans. When we hear the word slavery, we think of the elements of our own nation’s history of which we need to repent.

However, this is not exactly what Paul was talking about. He has in mind the slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh in Egypt, and their liberation from that. As Paul goes through the Book of Romans, he is drawing a comparison from that part of Israel’s history, saying that now we have a new “exodus” taking place with the coming of the Messiah.

The new exodus isn’t liberating us from a human tyrant, but rather from an even greater tyrant: sin. The fundamental problem of humanity is an issue of sin. Sin, like Pharaoh did to the Israelites in the Old Testament, enslaves people as instruments to carry out its will in the world. So the gospel of Jesus Christ is a call to a new exodus from the bondage of sin as a tyrannical oppressor.

The word “sin” in our modern context is another loaded word, so let me clarify what Paul means when he talks about sin.

Sin is universal. All people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color your skin is, how much money you have. Every person ever to dwell on this planet is alike in the condition of sin. Humans have a tendency to single out particular sins as worse than others, and by doing such moralizing, all you are really doing is blinding yourself to your own depravity by minimizing your own sins as not as bad as others.

I think this concept is reflected in the movement in America today to tear down the statues of some historical figures because of the offensive beliefs and behaviors they committed as part of their success. The thinking is that we should purge ourselves of the celebration of these sinners. I definitely understand the feeling behind this, and I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be done. However, the sins of these people are no worse than the sins of everyone else. If we tear down the statues of every sinner, we would have no statues left. If we change the names of every building that was dedicated to a sinner, we would have no name to change them to, because every other candidate would also be a sinner.

One thing I love about the Bible is that it deals honestly with humans. For all of the heroes, it gives us an honest account of both their successes and their failures. David was a “man after God’s own heart,” but also an adulterer and murderer. Paul himself was a great Apostle and missionary, but he was also a persecutor and murderer. Anybody that we can pick throughout the pages of Scripture—except Jesus—is a mixed bag of victories and sins. It helps prove to us that every single person is the same in this condition of sin.

And that’s what sin is, a condition. All of the evil behaviors done by people: racism, malice, anger, violence, murder, adultery, greed, envy, deceit… They’re all outward symptoms of the root condition of every human being. So what Paul challenges us to do is to be honest about the condition of every human heart.

One thing I love about the U.S. Government is that it takes the sinfulness of human nature into account. Our system of checks and balances acknowledges that our government is being run by a bunch of sinners, and so we can’t universally trust any of them. We cannot allow any one person or party or branch to acquire too much power, because they’re all sinners. And as voters, we can decide to vote out all the sinners and replace them with a whole new bunch of sinners. It’s not a perfect system, but it does acknowledge the universal sinful condition of the human heart.

Then in Romans, Paul challenges us to accept that as believers in Christ, we are no longer slaves to the bondage of sin. We have been liberated to follow a new ruler, the ruler of righteousness (Rom. 6:19).

Going back to the story of the first exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses was frustrated with the people because they kept looking back and longing to return to Egypt, to go back to the familiarity of that old lifestyle. In the new exodus, we are the same way, tending to look back at our old sinful lifestyles and want to return. We are in the difficult in-between period where we have been freed from the tyranny of sin but not fully released from its effects, and we are torn, often wanting to go back. We have to be intentional about looking forward, focusing on letting go of the old way of thinking and relating, and intentionally placing ourselves under the authority of Jesus Christ.

I love the old Bob Dylan song that expresses this perfectly:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Album: Slow Train Coming, 1979

This is fundamentally what Paul is saying here. As human beings, we’re going to be instruments of something. Either we will be instruments of sin, or we will repent of that and become instruments of righteousness. But no matter what, we will be serving somebody.

When we were under the tyranny of sin, we didn’t have choice in the matter. Scripture says that we were in bondage, slaves to sin. But thanks be to God that Jesus sets us free and give us the ability to choose, repent, and turn away from that bondage.

Paul sets out that choice before us: which will you serve? If you go back to the slavery of sin, ask yourself the question, “How’s that working for you?” What benefit do you get from being a slave to sin? If you look at it honestly, you will know it’s not much. We tend to look back as our life in sin as a time of license and freedom from rules. But when we face the truth, we realize that all we get from that life is shame, and ultimately death.

Choosing a life of righteousness in the service of Christ is all that will give life, eternal life. God is the only one who gives abundant life, significance, meaning, and ultimate freedom through Jesus Christ. He pours out his Spirit and his love into our hearts, and we get holiness and eternal life.

Every single day, as we walk on this earth as humans, we have moments when we have a choice to turn back to the old ways or to come out from under that tyranny and choose Jesus Christ. I encourage you to give your heart to Jesus, to seek after his will for your life by asking his Holy Spirit to fill your heart and make you new, to set you free from bondage to sin to eternal life and holiness.

The Father’s Freedom

A Father’s Day Sermon

Every Father’s Day, I think about how grateful I am for my own father. Our relationship hasn’t always been perfect, but he has impacted my life in powerful ways, and I have always been confident of his love and care for me and his desire to see me succeed. I am grateful for the gift of my father.

Then it’s funny to consider today’s Gospel passage in light of Father’s Day, because it seems that Jesus is speaking against fathers and family relationships.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Matthew 10:34-37

Is Jesus really affirming the breakdown of family? I want to suggest right away that no, Jesus is not advocating the destruction of the family or telling us to disobey God’s commandment to honor our father and mother. I believe that what he is doing is affirming that, in this sinful and fallen world, sometimes our loyalty and devotion to God will set us at odds with the members of our family.

Jesus issued two great commandments: 1. Love the Lord, and 2. Love your neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39), and it’s important to remember that Jesus put these in order of importance. Love of God must come first, and switching the priority of these commandments will always go wrong. Our allegiance must always be to God first.

The Apostle Paul addresses this idea in Romans 6:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:1-4

He addresses the question about why we should stop sinning, if our sin only causes God’s grace to multiply to us. Doesn’t God want to be recognized as showing more grace? Paul says no, if we truly love God, we will want to please him by stopping sin. Our allegiance has changed from our sin and selves to putting God first. When we accepted Jesus and united with him in baptism, we turned away from our old ways of sin. So why would we want to go back to sin, when that goes against what we have now declared our allegiance to?

It’s like my high school swim coach, who was an excellent coach, and he got a very good job offer to go coach for our rival school across town. Once he switched jobs, he switched teams, switched allegiances. He was no longer rooting for my team to win – he was rooting and working for our rival! In the same way, when we choose to align ourselves with Christ, we no longer work for his enemy. We have changed teams, switched sides, given our allegiance to the other side. It would be ridiculous for us to keep working for sin once we have switched over to Christ’s side, and that is exactly what Paul is saying.

In fact, the truth about sin goes even further than this, because the Bible says that we are not just changing sides when we follow Christ, but we are being freed from slavery to sin. Paul puts it this way:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.

Romans 6:6-7

So in sending his Son, what God did was redeem slaves and make them his children. So when we are baptized into Christ, we are liberated from the tyrannical forces of evil and corrupt powers of sin in this world, and adopted into the eternal family of God. How much then does he deserve our allegiance?

Unfortunately, just like the Israelites in the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt, we also tend to want to go back into slavery. Back into the bondage of sin, under the authority of the evil one.

This is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel passage. People respond to the call of the kingdom of God and say they want to follow Jesus, but then the forces of evil will put the pressure on. Fear is a powerful controlling force in our lives, and we will feel shame and intimidation about following Christ, from even those people we care about most.

We have to decide to stand up and speak out for the gospel of Jesus Christ, not matter how people speak against us, or WHO speaks against us. We no longer have to be motivated by fear. Yes, we do fear God, but what he wants us to focus on more is the overwhelming love that the Father has for us. He knows us intimately, and we can be absolutely secure in his loving care. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).

We must hold on to this truth, even when the people we care about do not want to give their allegiance to God. They want to remain under tyranny. The pressure will be on, and we have to choose to whom our loyalty belongs, no matter what.

Returning to the theme of family and fatherhood, I think that many of the problems in our society today are caused by the breakdown of the family, which is fundamentally caused by the breakdown of the father. I am definitely not trying to criticize or tear down men – we have enough of that in our world. But the renewal of the family begins with the renewal of fatherhood. So many studies point to this. What the world desperately needs is the renewal of godly fathers – men who are brave and courageous because they know to whom their allegiance is given.

So I have two practical steps for fathers to take if they want to be strong and godly fathers who protect their families:

  1. Make the love of Jesus Christ your first and primary allegiance. Fear God more than you fear anything else. Love God more than you love anything else. Courage comes from finding your security in the love that God the Father has for you.
  2. As fathers, create differentiated leadership. Because of your primary allegiance to the Lord, that will set you apart as a leader so that you will stand when no one else is standing. You will speak when no one else is speaking. You will go toe to toe with evil and fight for your marriage, your family, and your community.

This is the call of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is looking for men who will truly be men, standing in the gap to be leaders in their homes and communities, whose hearts truly and fully belong to him.

The Gospel of Grace

Sermon on Justification, Peace, and Grace

The more I read the Bible, I am continually reminded how relevant God’s Word is to our current circumstances and current events.

This Sunday’s Gospel passage says:

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9:35-36

The word “harassed” struck me as particularly relevant right now. The definition of harassed is “subjected to aggressive pressure or intimidation.” It has to do with being attacked or bullied, under stress and pressure. In addition, “helpless” means “unable to defend oneself.”

As we look at the state of affairs in our country, many of us say that we have never seen it so bad. So many people are legitimately “harassed and helpless.” So much is being stirred up; so many are crying out for something they do not have; mutual recriminations are being lobbed across partisan lines; we are fearful and isolated because of disease.

In the middle of this time, our Gospel passage assures us: No matter who you are, Jesus sees you, and he has compassion for you.

Then this Sunday’s Epistle passage says:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2

The words that stand out to me from this passage are “justified,” “peace,” and “access.” They are relevant to the discussions around race relations that we are having right now. As I learned in my conversations with black pastors after Trayvon Martin was shot in our community in Florida, both sides were often so busy trying to prove their own points that we didn’t actually listen to or understand what the other side was saying. We were trying to justify ourselves, but self-justification is how we get off the rails with one another. When we try to justify ourselves, we do that by judging others.

We point fingers at someone else or some circumstance outside ourselves, saying “There’s the problem.” Religious people have a strong tendency to do this, claiming that we are the solution rather than part of the problem. The Apostle Paul shuts down this way of thinking by saying, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We are all alike under sin. You know the old saying that says that whenever you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself. We are all to blame. We are all the problem. None of us will find justification in ourselves.

But Paul goes on to say that although we can’t justify ourselves, thanks be to God that he provides justification freely as a gift through Jesus Christ. So there is no room for boasting or self-righteousness (3:27).

Justification isn’t the full answer, though. The Epistle passage also talks about peace. We can’t talk about healing relationships until we talk about justice.

In 1956, Autherine Lucy became the first black student at the University of Alabama. However, after only one day of classes, such violent protests broke out on campus that they revoked her admission. In response to this situation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this:

I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace… But it would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant [complacency], deadening passivity and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” March 8, 1956

In the same sermon, Dr. King referenced the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Dr. King was quick to say that neither he nor Jesus were advocating violence as a way to promote justice. Rather, they were advocating creating tension in order to aspire to the full vision of the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus spoke those words, he was speaking in the context of the Pax Romana, which was an enforced peace that harassed and bullied people into submitting to Roman rule. Disruption and tension were not tolerated. Sure, it created peace on the streets, but it also created extreme injustice.

In today’s world, we are in those moments again. We need to have difficult conversations about justice and equality, but we have a fear that if we allow these conversations to go to far, they will spiral out of control into violence. When we get too much tension, we end up with anarchy and chaos. And yet we have to allow some level of tension in order to bring about change that promotes the Kingdom of God here on earth.

The tension between peace with justice and peace without justice creates a real challenge that we must face.

One of the problems with many of the solutions this world has to offer is that the number of solutions are quite limited. Often our solutions are legal – policy changes, government changes. You can’t change a heart by changing a law, and this is a gospel message that the world desperately needs to hear. This world will not be changed by law, but by grace.

When Jesus looked out upon the “harassed and helpless” crowds and compared them to “sheep without a shepherd,” he knew he was there to be their Good Shepherd. He knew he was going to lay down his life for his sheep, die for all of their sins. And he knew he was going to die not only for the harassed and helpless, but also for the harassers and oppressors. He died for them all.

He laid down his life in order to offer us a type of access that this world can never offer us, a type of justification this world can never offer us, and a type of peace this world can never offer us. We have justification before God as a gift of God through the righteousness of Jesus. We have peace with God through Jesus and access directly into the presence of the living God through Jesus.

Paul goes on to say:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

Oh, how this world desperately needs to hear that message of grace. I know I need to hear it. It is the answer to the root problem of humanity.

After Jesus looked with compassion upon the harassed and helpless crowds, he issued this challenge to his disciples:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:37-38

He challenged his disciples to pray earnestly for workers who would go out and take God’s miraculous message of grace, justice, peace, and access out to the world. When we begin to pray this prayer, we gain the heart of Jesus and we take on the mission of Jesus.

When we find ourselves making it a battle against flesh and blood, arguing with and judging others, we need to back up. We need to remember that we are united as a human family in our need for salvation and grace, and God has given us a Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us.

River of God

Day of Pentecost Sermon on Justice and Hope

After a week like the weeks our nation has just had, when we see injustice and violence on the streets, racial tension building, protests erupting, and even rioting and looting, I’m always nervous when I get up to preach on a Sunday following that. Even though I have seen this before in my 22 years of active ministry, there’s still always a fear that I’m going to say the wrong thing or that what I say would not be helpful or cause more division. However, I can always return to the Scripture, the words of the Lord. It’s not my eloquence needed in these moments, but we need to hear from God. He is the source of hope and truth.

I see those who are raising their voices in protest, and I feel a sense of solidarity with them. I’m not of the same skin color or background or socioeconomic class as many of them, but I firmly agree with them that things are not right in this country. Although our country and government are very good, we cannot be satisfied until we have justice for all. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it perfectly in his “I Have A Dream” speech:

No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We need to acknowledge those who suffer under oppression and injustice, but we need to make sure to place our hope in the right thing. Our hope is not in a president or a political party or a change of government; our hope can only be in the gospel of Jesus Christ and his Lordship, in the plan of God for this world manifested on the Day of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit of God.

The Day of Pentecost represents a reversal of the divisions among men. The Apostle Paul puts it plainly:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Ephesians 2:13-18

Paul says that through the work of Christ on the cross, Jesus created even ground on which all of us stand, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or even our sin. We are all standing at the foot of the cross on the same ground. We are equals in our need for grace and forgiveness.

We all receive that grace and forgiveness freely through Christ, and therefore that same grace and forgiveness must be manifested in our lives in the way we treat each other. Paul’s vision of a unified body of Christ must happen now, in our day, through the ministry of the Church.

The Day of Pentecost represents the culmination of the story of the people of Israel that began with the first Passover, their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Then they went through the Red Sea on dry ground. They are brought through the desert to Mt. Sinai, where they are given the Law of Moses, instructions for how to be the holy people of God. Then much of the rest of the story of the Bible tells how ultimately there is no sacrifice and no law that will truly and finally deliver people from sin and reconcile them to God. We need a new covenant that will be based in better blood and a better law.

This new covenant was foretold by the prophets:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Ezekiel 36:26-27

The prophets recognized that external law was not sufficient for our ultimate deliverance. We need God to do his work inside us by his Spirit. Without the gift of the Holy Spirit, human beings will forever be trapped in bondage, injustice, unrighteousness—our sin nature. External human leadership and governance is irrelevant because only the power of the living God being poured into human beings by the Holy Spirit will bring ultimate deliverance.

This what we see manifesting on the Day of Pentecost—the outpouring of the new covenant, the fulfillment of the prophecies, even the fulfillment of the Law. We see Jewish people from everywhere—different races, different languages, different cultural backgrounds—coming together to celebrate the giving of the Law—the Old Covenant. But instead God institutes his New Covenant. He declared that it is time for the dividing walls to come down, so he can bring peace to those of different languages and backgrounds.

I remember 8 years ago, when Trayvon Martin was shot in my neighborhood in Florida, my first instinct was to stay out of it. However, as I saw it enveloping my own community, I realized that as a pastor, I needed to step up on behalf of the Gospel. I asked a black pastor friend to explain the situation to him from his perspective, and he explained to me the way the justice system was failing the black community, especially young black men. I had to enter that uncomfortable place and truly just LISTEN, to try to learn what I did not naturally understand. Only then was I able to engage in the circumstance with any kind of effectiveness.

The Lord calls us into uncomfortable places, Pentecost moments, when we have to go across divisions—across race, across language, across background—to hear things we would not naturally hear. On the Day of Pentecost, they were declaring the deeds of the Lord, not making a name for themselves. God ordained that those who were divided would be united, but only in the worship of his name and praise in the power of his Holy Spirit.

So in these moments we have a choice and an opportunity. We may choose to devolve, to hunker down into our divisions and tribalism, our political party’s talking points and our own limited worldview. Or we can step out in faith, listen with the ears of the Holy Spirit, and call upon the power of God to do mighty things that none of us could do on our own.

I got a tiny taste of this in Florida, when a large gathering of black pastors and white pastors all came together to pray for our community and nation, that God would heal us and reverse the effects of sin—injustice, divisions, unrighteousness. It was a powerful moment in which I experienced the power of Pentecost, and I believe it was a glimpse of God’s ultimate plan for all of creation.

In Ezekiel 47, Ezekiel writes of a vision he was given by the Lord. A stream begins at the temple of God, and it flows out of Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea. It gets bigger and bigger, eventually so large that it cannot be measured, and as it enters the Dead Sea, the water becomes fresh and life erupts, abundance overflows.

The Jews would commemorate this prophecy at an annual feast, where the high priest would pour out a pitcher of water at the altar of the temple in Jerusalem, symbolic of beginning the flow of that river in Ezekiel’s vision. The Jews knew that the flow of abundant life hadn’t begun yet, but they celebrated it annually in the hope that it would. It was at this very ceremony when Jesus stood up among the crowd and said these words:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

John 7:37-38

Jesus explained that he was the source of abundant life, and the source of the living water that would flow out and renew the whole world. When Jesus poured out his Spirit at Pentecost, that’s when he began the flow of that river of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Acts 2:37 says that those who were there on the Day of Pentecost, who heard Peter’s sermon, were “cut to the heart.” They were deeply affected and convicted within of their need for God. My prayer is that we will be affected the same way.

May we all be “cut to the heart” at what we see in the world around us. May we feel convicted of our need for God. May we not be satisfied with what we see, but feel the urgency and the desire for justice, righteousness, peace, reconciliation, and healing. May we cry out to God from a posture of humility and repentance. May we repent and turn to the God who alone can save us, who alone can heal our divisions.

Only then will “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

You Will Receive Power

There are two major commissions that we find in Scripture that really stand out as Jesus’ commissions to his disciples and apostles, and therefore to us. The first one you probably thought of is The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and I will be looking at that one in a few weeks.

The second one can be found in Acts 1:8:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

I’d like to focus on that word, “power.” It is translated from the Greek word δύναμις (dynamis), which we get words like “dynamite” from, and it represents the power of God. Spiritual power, Ascension Day power.

I know that during this time of quarantine and isolation, many of us feel weak and powerless. Many things have been taken out of our control – our health and safety, our finances, our relationships. Although I’ve heard that some introverts are thriving during this time, extroverts like myself can feel drained and powerless after being isolated so long. We have all lost so much that gives us energy and power.

However, we can intentionally claim this season as a time of spiritual power, a time to incubate the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Ephesians 1:15-23 (emphasis mine)

What Paul is praying for the church is for them to not only understand who they are in Christ, but also to understand what is available to them through him – the immeasurably great power.

I could tell many stories of how I have seen God’s power in my own experience, but I’ll just tell this one. When I was pastoring in Florida, there was a woman in our church named Lisa who became gravely ill. There was a risky surgery that may be able to help her, but it was so dangerous that they had her lawyer come to her hospital room and help her get her affairs in order before they would even attempt it. We had our entire church and the surrounding region praying for her and for God to work a miracle. On the day of the surgery, they again scanned her body and discovered that her veins had miraculously reattached, and her diseased organ was now healthy. God had healed her completely! I was told that the vascular surgeon exclaimed out loud in the room, “That’s impossible! That can’t happen!” And the operating surgeon explained to the observing interns, “This is something they won’t tell you in medical school. Sometimes God does powerful things in the lives of people.”

This is a wonderful and powerful story, but it upsets me sometimes that nobody teaches these things! We are raised in an educational system that teaches all sorts of skills to people who are going to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, businesspeople, but it robs them of the knowledge of the power that can come through knowing the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

That’s where Paul’s prayer above becomes so necessary. We must pray to know that power, and pray for others to know that power as well. How the way we live would be changed if we really KNEW the power of God available to us!

Paul says it in more than one place in Scripture – the same power that raised Jesus from the dead also raises us who believe up with him, and we are seated with him together in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:5-6, Colossians 2:12).

As the eyes of our hearts are being opened to this immeasurably great power, a natural question follows: How can we access this power? Paul explains this, too:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:14-21 (emphasis mine)

If you’re worried about the health of a sickly plant, you need to find out what’s going on with its roots. If you’re worried about your own weak spiritual health, you need to discern whether you are rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ. If you want to see the power of God in your life, you need to be rooted and established in his love.

When you are firmly rooted in Christ, two manifestations of spiritual power will result:

  1. Spiritual Gifts – God pours out spiritual gifts on his people, and you will see his gifts manifest in your life when you are experiencing God’s power.
  2. Spiritual Maturity – As the members of the body of Christ grow in God’s power, they all grow together in maturity, filled with life and the power of God, growing up into the head, which is Jesus Christ. This will become evident in the way we relate to our spouses, parent our children, administrate ourselves in the workplace, and exercise our professions.

The power of God is what is desperately needed in our society right now. I pray that this time of isolation will be an incubation period of the Holy Spirit, so that what is released back into our societies when Christians return to the public sphere is an unleashing of a mighty revival of the Spirit of God. We must use this time as a preparation to go to war against the enemy of God, armed with the spiritual weapons of God’s Spirit.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12

May we know that power given to us by God, that same power that raised Jesus from the dead and ascended him to the right hand of God. May we embrace that power and allow God to use it to do mighty works in and through us.

Time for the Good Shepherd

Sermon from John 10:1-15

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 1:6-7

In the verse above, Peter tells us that times of suffering actually work like a refiner’s fire on our faith. It burns away that which is temporary and unproductive, and it reveals that which is eternal and holy. I believe that this time of coronavirus is acting as a refiner’s fire in terms of leadership—it is revealing the quality of leadership as the challenges of this day are being met. It reveals not only the strength of leadership, but also the motives.

This is in all levels of society—not only government, but also business, healthcare, and even within our homes. Being quarantined with our families is revealing both the weaknesses and strengths of our leadership in the home.

The Gospel passage for today is all about leadership. John records Jesus’ comparison between two entities: thieves/robbers vs. the shepherd. The first comparison is in the way they relate to the flock. Thieves access the flock through illegitimate means: secrecy and stealth. By contrast, the shepherd accesses his sheep through rightful and lawful means. The gatekeeper recognizes the shepherd, and so do the sheep—the sheep know him and follow him.

Verse 6 tells us that Jesus’ listeners didn’t understand what he was saying. I don’t think this means they couldn’t grasp the metaphor of leading sheep compared to leading people. I believe what they didn’t understand was how it applied to themselves. They didn’t want to honestly look at the challenges in their own leadership and discover that they were leading God’s people in a way that was not legitimate or correct.

So as Jesus continues his illustration, he shifts the metaphor slightly to try to help them understand. He says, “I am the door for the sheep” (v. 7). Now this is a little bit unexpected. We would expect him to go straight to “I am the Good Shepherd.” He does get there (v. 11), but he makes an important point about the door first. What he is saying is that he becomes the measure of legitimacy when it comes to the leadership of the people of God—he is the only legitimate way to access God’s people. Jesus is the difference between a good leader and a false leader.

He goes on to flesh out the two defining criteria that determine whether a leader is good or false: intention and impact.

The motivating intention of false leadership is self-interest. “The thief comes only to steal” (v. 10). The prophet Samuel spoke of this in 1 Samuel 8:10-18, when the people rejected God’s leadership and demanded a human king. The gist of his warning was this: “Human kings exist to take. They will take your freedom, they will take your children, they will take control of your life.”

Now, don’t hear me saying that human leadership is always of that ilk. There are good and bad leaders, but we always have to be wary that the intentions behind human leadership MAY be self-serving. False leaders desire to take power and resources for their own benefit. This is revealed plainly during these times of suffering. Illegitimate leadership is always destructive to those being led by it.

On the other hand, good leadership selflessly gives rather than takes. It gives abundant life to those who are led by it. In our day and age, how we need good leadership that selflessly seeks to give rather than take, to build up rather than destroy!

In Jesus’ day, the people of God had been scattered, harassed, oppressed, and dominated by many other nations and powers. Jesus compares them to sheep under a bad shepherd, and he offers them the opportunity to return to safety and security under his leadership. He is the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.

Jesus gives us the model of sacrificial leadership that we can follow in every aspect of our lives—at home, in the workplace, in the pubic sphere. Jesus says that good leadership gives itself away, and our world desperately needs this right now.

He is not only our example, but he is still the best leader that we could ever follow. All of us are lost sheep who need a strong, loving, sacrificial shepherd:

For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:25

Have you given your life to the Shepherd of your soul? Do you listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, who calls you by name and offers to bring you to a place of abundant life? During this time of testing and refining, where are you placing your hope, and who are you following? I encourage you to place your confidence fully in the Good Shepherd.

Resurrected Life Brings Living Hope

Sermon from John 20:19-31

The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything for us. He is making us new from the inside out, and, in the words of 1 Peter, he have given us “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3).

People often wonder why Christians usually meet to worship on Sunday, the first day of the week. I’ve heard it explained that it is because the resurrected Christ first appeared to his disciples on the first day of the week (John 20:19), and many other resurrection sightings took place on that day. As Christians, we choose this day to gather as a celebration of new beginnings and new life. Every Sunday is the possibility of a new start, a new resurrection that can happen in our lives.

So what is it that is being made new for Christians? How is the resurrection made real in us? Let’s look at how it happened for the disciples.

First, the resurrection is an opportunity for us to say goodbye to insecurity and fear in our lives. In John 20, the disciples are hiding behind locked doors in fear, and Jesus walks straight past those locked doors to bring incredible peace to them. I feel like this has a direct application to our current context. We are stuck in our homes behind our doors because of quarantine due to the coronavirus, out of fear of spreading the illness. Stay at home right now is an appropriate action, but I just want to acknowledge that Jesus can bring his peace straight through those locked doors.

Metaphorically, what fears and insecurities are keeping you behind locked doors? Allow the resurrection of Christ to bring fresh hope and new life to those areas of your life.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

John 20:19

Second, he also commissions them to go out with apostolic authority. Although we cannot physically go out because of our stay-at-home orders, the Gospel is not chained behind locked doors. We have technology that can still allow us to communicate, and we can use all of those media to spread the truth of Christ.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

John 20:21

Third, as he sends them, he also empowers them with his Holy Spirit, and he gives them the responsibility of being the very means of God’s grace and forgiveness in the lives of others.

He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

John 20:22-23

We are ambassadors of his ministry of reconciliation. Maybe this current context can give you the opportunity to think about relationships you have where there are problems that need to be resolved. Is there anyone that you can extend grace and forgiveness to right now?

As the Scripture passage continues, we learn that poor Thomas was the only disciple who wasn’t there at that time, and so he missed the spectacular encounter that the others had with Jesus. I call him “poor Thomas,” because I think he has gotten a bad reputation from this story as “Doubting Thomas.” Yes, Thomas did doubt at first, but who wouldn’t when presented with such an outrageous tale as this? Later, when he does personally encounter the risen Christ, he is one of the first people ever recorded as calling Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” What a marvelous response to the truth of the resurrection! I think a better name for him would be “Worshiping Thomas.”

If you find yourself struggling with doubt like Thomas, please know that God wants to directly address those doubts the same way he did with Thomas. He wants to speak his peace into your heart, to bring new life and confidence to your insecurities, and he wants to commission you to become a means of his grace in this world. He wants to use this trial to test the genuineness of your faith (1 Peter 1:6-7).

John goes on to say:

These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31

Jesus wants each of us to claim the new life that he offers through his resurrection. He offers us the fullness of his resurrected life.

Into the Father’s Hands

A Palm Sunday Sermon from Luke 23

I found myself emotional as I was watching the online service led by our worship team on the video screen. I’ve been involved in corporate worship for 25 years, and now because of the Covid-19 quarantine, it has been weeks and weeks since we have been able to meet as a corporate body and worship together. I realized the word for what I’m experiencing is grief.

Grief hits us all in different ways at different times, but it always comes in stages. I can see now how I’m going through them all in regards to my grief over the loss of the church body in my own experience right now: anger, bargaining, denial. And now we must come to acceptance, because the reality is that things are probably still going to get worse before they get better.

And so this Gospel passage finds even more significant application on this Palm Sunday as we face these unprecedented times. As Jesus is hanging on the cross dying, he says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He is surrendering himself totally to the will of the Father. He knows that the will of the Father is his own death, as an act of atonement for the world, a way of expressing God’s love.

This statement from Jesus could be seen as his own acceptance stage of grief. We had previously seen him grieving in the Garden of Gethsemane, truly agonizing over the ordeal he knew was to come. Yet there, on the cross, he comes to acceptance: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

As we consider what Jesus went through, we see that he not only experienced the physical suffering that any person who died by crucifixion would. But Jesus also uniquely bore the spiritual suffering of the punishment for all the sins of the world. And yet he was the only person ever to die innocent. All those who witnessed his arrest, torture, and death could see it (Luke 23:4, 14-15, 22, 47). This is what makes him the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world – the Lamb of God, whose sacrifice would reconcile the world back to himself.

Jesus’ death was the will of the Father, and it was the most difficult will anyone would ever have to bear. The good news for us now is that Jesus bore it on our behalf, and so now we don’t have to.

Jesus bore the most difficult will of the Father, and yet in the same way, the Father calls us to bear great difficulties – corporately and personally. We must follow Jesus’ example and surrender ourselves into the loving and trustworthy hands of the Father.

Take a moment to consider whose hands you are entrusting yourself to. Are we placing our trust in the hands of government officials who are making decisions about how we are to weather this crisis? Are we placing our trust in the hands of medical professionals, whose skill and sacrifice are crucial to our survival? Are we placing our trust in the hands of financial planners and banks who can help us weather the financial crisis? We are always entrusting ourselves to other people, and that trust is often well founded – we SHOULD be trusting people who know how to help us get through.

However, our ultimate trust should be in the good hands of God the Father. There is NO ONE more trustworthy and able to control our outcomes.

Like Jesus did, we should commit our spirits, our life, our breath to God the Father. It’s striking that in the current circumstance, the Covid-19 virus attacks our breath – it is the respiratory system that often fails under this disease. Will you entrust your very breath to the Father, even when it is under targeted attack?

The thief on the cross next to Jesus models this very thing to us. Facing his imminent death, he entrusts himself to Jesus by begging him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus shows him favor, love, and kindness, proving that his trust was well-founded.

As we face our own dangerous and uncertain times, let’s commit our own spirits to God the Father in the way Jesus did.