Grace Is Not Fair

Sermon on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

It is human nature to grumble and complain. We see this as a consistent problem among the people of God throughout redemptive history. When a person has been liberated from sin and called by God into the process of sanctification, there is a range of the sins of the flesh that Christians generally don’t struggle with as much as secular people do – Prodigal son-type sins. These are the ones to first work their way out of our lifestyles after we have been saved by Jesus. The sins that Christians tend to struggle with more are the sins of disposition, of attitude, of the heart. This is why Paul says in Romans 12 that we need to make a break from the pattern of the world and renew our minds.

This is what happens for the Israelites after they have left Egypt. They need to shift from a slave mindset, subservient to both the people and gods of Egypt, to a God-only mindset.

In Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20, this is the very mindset he is addressing. One of the most pesky sins that plagues the faithful is that we struggle with grace. We gravitate more toward self-righteousness and dependence on the law – the legalism of the Pharisees that requires fairness according to our own understanding.

In this parable, the landowner hires more workers all throughout the day, and a problem comes at the end of the day when he is paying his workers. What we do in our modern culture is keep secret how much each person is being paid to avoid jealousy or a sense of unfairness among workers who are being paid different amounts. But Jesus isn’t giving business advice here; he’s teaching a lesson about grace and generosity.

“That’s not fair!” It’s a common phrase heard among parents of siblings, who are striving to make sure they are being given equal treatment from their parents. It’s the charge that’s being leveled against the landowner in this parable, and it is very frequently a charge that we level against God. We accuse him of not being fair in the way he distributes his beneficence.

We say, “God is being better to them than he is to me.” “Why are they so happy when I struggle with this?” This is a very dangerous game to play against our brothers and sisters in Christ. We claim that others don’t have to bear the burdens we bear, and we resent God for not being kind to us.

We see the same principle in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I believe this parable is misnamed, because it’s really about the older brother, who resented the kindness of his father and grumbled against what he perceived to be unfairness. How very often we see this attitude in the church. We need to be careful with this, because it implies that we believe working for the kingdom of God to be drudgery, that being faithful to the Lord feels like slavery.

We also see this among the Israelites in Exodus. God displays his incredible, mighty acts in setting them free from slavery in Egypt, and then when they get out into the wilderness, they grumble and complain because of food. They accuse God of being cruel and uncaring. They claim that slavery in Egypt is in any way better than following God through the wilderness. Their nostalgia for the old, familiar ways had them believing that somehow those who are faithful to the Lord receive less blessing than those who are not. This is a common deception that the enemy uses against God’s people. We see it all through Scripture and even today.

A common misperception in our culture is, as my wife says, that we compare other people’s outsides with our insides. We assume that what we see on the outside is what is actually true on the inside, and that is very rarely true. In the parable, it’s interesting to see the attitude of the first vineyard workers toward the ones who were hired last. They did not show compassion for the workers hired last or an awareness for the need they might be experiencing.

And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

Matthew 20:6-7

In verses 6-7, we see the motivation of those hired last – they wanted to work! They would have been glad to have worked all day, but no one hired them. In the same way, we have no idea the motivations and circumstances of the people around us who don’t yet follow the Lord. One of the things about grace is that it is a great equalizer – we all stand in the same need of it, regardless of how or when we come to receive it.

The last attitude that Jesus challenges in this parable is our bad attitude toward the generosity of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t work according to our plans, our timetables, or our methods. The landowner makes the point to the workers: It’s my prerogative to pay my workers what I want to. If I want to show them generosity, that is up to me.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?

Matthew 20:15

The landowner made an effort to go out all through the day and seek out all those who needed work, and to make sure they had what they needed. The first workers failed to see this because they were focused only on themselves. So they begrudged his generosity. In the same way, God intentionally seeks out the lost to save them on his own timeline, and it is up to him to give mercy as he sees fit.

All of us need his mercy in the same way. Especially recently, the season of coronavirus and quarantine has been a challenging one, but some have struggled worse than others. We may be tempted to get angry and resentful at God over this, but the Lord’s desire is to redeem and sanctify us into mature believers. It is a privilege to fellowship in the sufferings of Christ, and that is a hard thing for us to grasp, but this is the maturity that God wishes to grow in us. May our mindsets change so that we accept that we get to bear the burden of each day in working for the kingdom of God as a reflection of the burden that Jesus bore for our salvation.

The Community of the Redeemed

Sermon on Christian Community

The tendency of the church today is to focus on the positive and ignore the negative. We focus only on the joyful and happy, but that’s not true to reality. We all have areas in our lives where sin has captivated our hearts and minds and manifested itself in our character. However, what God envisions for his people is to bring us out in a New Exodus, delivering us from sin and its negative effects in our lives.

We read in Exodus 12 where the deliverance of Israel required a costly blood sacrifice, and then in the Gospels, Jesus redefines the Passover by saying, “I am the Passover Lamb, whose blood is shed for you.”

God is enacting a New Exodus by gathering his people – Jew and Gentile – out of this world and bringing this redeemed group of sinners into a collective community called the Church. All of those redeemed sinners have brought in their issues and defects – anger, selfishness, habitual sins – into this community of the redeemed. The people of God are a motley crew.

Not only do we come with our own personal flaws, but we also carry with us our own backgrounds of nationality, race, social class, and economic status, which lead us to misunderstand and sin against each other.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which literally means “to miss the mark,” like when you shoot an arrow and don’t hit the target. When we sin against each other, we miss the mark of how we should treat each other.

It’s interesting to be thinking about community when we have all been quarantined away from each other for so long. As we begin to start gathering back together, it is very likely that after 6 months apart, many of us are out of practice and have lost our social cues. We have become so used to isolation that we will have to re-learn how to be gracious to each other.

We can miss the mark by being critical of each other, backbiting, being angry or frustrated toward each other, ignoring each other’s needs, failing to communicate well, being judgmental, being verbally abusive (I’m looking at you, social media.), being sexist, being cliquish, telling jokes at each other’s expense, being irresponsible, being arrogant, snobbish, rude, and boastful. We hurt each other all the time.

It is actually remarkable that God would bring together this group of sinners in the first place, but he does it as a way to model what the heavenly community could look like. This is why the Church is called to be salt and light, a vision for how God intends for us to treat each other.

Sometimes the church is called the “beloved community,” and that reminds me of wedding vows. A bride and groom vow to love each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until they are parted by death. This is the same love that each member of the Church is called to have for their fellow believers. Note that at the beginning of the wedding service, the officiant opens with “Dearly beloved…” He’s talking to the congregation there, as people who are called to be in covenant community with both God and each other.

The problem with trying to be happy all the time is that it’s mostly fake. Like Disney World, the “happiest place on earth,” the entire environment has to be artificially manufactured and tightly controlled in order to maintain that image. That is not real life. When the Church tries to apply this model, that is hypocrisy.

It’s actually in the sick times, the hard times, the unhappy times that we prove our genuine faith and manifest the Passover community of people who have been saved by grace. Jesus tells us to intentionally address the hard things:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 

Matthew 18:15

We are pressing through the hard times in order to win each other. This is the model of brotherly love. Notice that in Matthew 18, Jesus instructs us to address an issue with our brother directly rather than talking to everyone else about it. Isn’t that the opposite of what we normally do? In today’s world, the first thing a person does when they are offended is write a nasty post on Facebook, telling the whole world about how they were wronged. This is the way of the world, not the way of faith. The result of that kind of behavior is destruction.

A popular phrase right now is “cancel culture” – withdrawing support from a company or individual that is no longer deemed worthy after a public mistake or failure. However, this is completely antithetical to the Christian faith and life. No one is “cancelled” or beyond redemption. We are to respect the dignity of every human being, even the worst of sinners.

The Bible warns us about making up our minds without knowing the whole story:

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

Proverbs 18:17

The problem with “cancel culture” is that it doesn’t allow both sides of the story to come out, and it doesn’t allow due process to run its course. Jesus outlined a due process for reconciliation between parties, which maintains respect and dignity while working through a grievance. Yes, sometimes people are stubborn and hard-hearted, and it is necessary to bring in other parties to mediate. But the goal is reconciliation, not destruction.

Bringing a grievance to the attention of the entire community should be a last resort, not a first course. The aim of even the most severe interventions is to win them, not “cancel” them. No person is a lost cause in Christ.

We should never underestimate the power of grace, the power of the blood of the Passover Lamb to save. We should never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit of the living God.

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). This doesn’t just apply to a worship service or Bible study; it applies to a private meeting to try to resolve conflict, too! The Holy Spirit manifests in a powerful way to transform people’s hearts and bring resolution and renewed relationship where there was conflict.

The sweetest moments in Christian fellowship are when we actually deal with the difficult challenges and problems in our communities, and we do the unnatural thing of avoiding gossip and instead seeking to work it out. Jesus shows up and glorifies his name in our midst as we contend for one another in our Christian communities. The presence of the living God binds on earth with the keys of heaven the community he has redeemed.

Pick Up Your Cross

Sermon from Matthew 16:21-28

I recently watched a movie about the Battle of Midway, one of the most significant naval battles in World War II. In this battle, one pivotal element of the Americans’ success was the pilots who flew dive-bombers, called helldivers, and attempted very dangerous attacks that, when carried out successfully, were able to deliver missiles at exactly the precise spot to sink the Japanese aircraft carriers. These tiny planes and the brave men flying them were able to assail and overcome massive opponents.

This mental image of the tiny helldivers bringing down huge aircraft carriers reminded me of the Gospel passage we talked about last week, when Jesus told his disciples that they would be able to storm the very gates of hell. I imagine the disciples were very excited and enthusiastic after that moment, and Peter felt ready to take on any foe after Jesus said to him, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

However, from this high moment, it all came crashing down in the very next paragraph in Matthew, when Jesus began to tell them about the tactics he planned to use to bring down the enemy. Jesus told them that he intended to use his own body to “dive-bomb” the gates of hell, by allowing himself to be arrested, insulted, tortured, and even killed at the hands of the Jewish leaders. But he assured them that this tactic would conquer the very gates of hell, because he would be raised to life again on the third day.

The disciples were completely shocked at this announcement, and we have Peter – the walk on water guy, the all-in guy with the clear confession of Jesus as the Christ, the rock on which Jesus would build his church – being reduced from a rock to a stumbling block to Jesus. When Peter resists the idea of Jesus’ death, Jesus tells him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).

What a reversal! We often find ourselves in the same situation… We are sold-out and excited about the mission of Jesus until we find out that the tactics he plans to use with us will cost us, and then we find ourselves pulling back.

Very rarely in life is the easy way the right way. Very rarely is the way of contentment the way of the hero.

I’m reminded of the story of Moses in Exodus 3, where he is captivated by the glorious vision of God in the burning bush, entering into the very presence of God. Moses is happy about his people being delivered from slavery until he hears how God plans to do it. When God tells Moses that he is the one God has chosen to go to Pharaoh on his behalf, I think Moses probably had a “St. Peter moment.” He was very reluctant to answer the calling of God. But God was calling him out of contentment into courage.

Jesus said the same thing to his disciples:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Matthew 16:24-26

The comfortable way, the convenient way, the easy way is not the way of the Lord. When Jesus calls someone to be his disciple, he “bids him come and die,” in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The call of a disciple is a call to courage, to a backbone of steel, to the bravery of a helldiver.

When I try to think of modern-day examples of this kind of bravery, I think of first-responders, like those who ran into the wreckage of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 to rescue those facing the destruction and the flames. Even closer to home, I think of medical professionals who every day put their own personal health at risk to face a global pandemic. And I think of teachers who this very week have put on their masks and put on their smiles and entered into the classroom, doing their best to keep our kids safe while ensuring their education. I think of the businesspeople who continue to fight for their businesses and their employees to keep our economy functioning. All of these people are helldivers in our day, putting their lives on the line to do what is right rather than what is easy or comfortable.

When our kids were younger, my wife and I were concerned about things we saw in their school, and so we made the difficult decision to pull them out of public school and enroll them in private school. In order to do this, we had to move and downsize our home, and my wife had to take a full-time job in order to afford it. However, we felt that it was the right thing for our children, and we would do anything for their welfare.

Most people can relate to this – we would do anything for our kids; we would sacrifice anything to make sure they are safe and happy. However, can we apply that same sense of devotion and self-sacrifice for the sake of the name of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God? Will we lay it all on the line to be the people that Jesus is calling us to be? Will we live by his Word alone? Will we dive-bomb the gates of hell for the sake of victory over his enemy?

Living the life of a disciple of Jesus is not without cost. However, Jesus promises that it’s not without reward either. Jesus continued by saying to his disciples:

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

Matthew 16:27-28

The Apostle Paul, a helldiver himself, put it a different way:

As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:36-39

The helldiver knows that the battle is worth it. It’s not a suicide mission; it’s a mission of bravery. It’s a personal devotion to the tactics required for victory for the kingdom of God.

Rock Solid Clarity

Sermon from Matthew 16:13-19

Several years ago, I ran for bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida. I was relieved not to win, but during that season when my name was in the running, I met with a leadership consultant named Bobb Beall. He told me something I’ll never forget:

“Leaders struggle in general with the issue of fog. The higher you go up in leadership, the foggier it gets because everything gets more complicated. Chaos is seen for what it is, and the uncertainties of life mount. What people need from leaders is clarity.”

Bobb Beall

That stuck with me because I connected with the idea of fog. Fog is something that can be debilitating when it hits us in life, and we are going through an extremely foggy season right now, with partisan politics, the Covid pandemic, the inability for Christians to meet together, and the economic state of uncertainty. It’s hard to know what to do with all of this, but the gospel offers us clarity.

Jesus offers us three aspects of clarity: clarity of our confession, clarity of our identity, and clarity of our calling.

One of the most important questions we can ever answer is “Who is Jesus?” Jesus asked his disciples what the word on the street was about who he was, and the answers were generally positive, but they were pretty scattered. So Jesus challenged the disciples to find clarity on their own belief of who he was, and Peter offered it plainly.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Matthew 16:13-16

Peter’s confession contains a few important elements. First, Peter said Jesus was the Christ, which affirms that Jesus is the Messiah that had been prophesied. The prophesied Messiah was expected in three different aspects: prophet, priest, and king. By the rest of Peter’s confession, he clarified which aspect of the Messiah he was talking about. By saying “the Son of the living God,” he was proclaiming Jesus to be the prophesied Messianic king – the King of Kings. Jesus affirms this belief and encourages Peter that this knowledge was revealed by God.

When we understand the nature of who Jesus is as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, it clarifies our own understanding of who we are as well. After Peter made this confession of Jesus’ identity, Jesus responded with a declaration of Peter’s identity:

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… “

Matthew 16:17-18a

Fully understanding and confessing who Jesus is defined Peter’s own identity – it gave him a new name and a new purpose.

In the book of Exodus, the nation of Israel had sold themselves to slavery because they were desperate for food. When they first went to Egypt, they started out on top, as the family of Joseph, the man who had saved Egypt from famine. However, as the years passed, a new Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know Joseph or care about what he had done in the past. Their status got lower and lower, until finally they were enslaved under an oppressive and cruel tyrant. As a people, the nation of Israel lost their sense of identity. They adopted a slave mentality and a sense of powerlessness.

God sent Israel a deliverer – Moses, who himself had a very confusing identity, as a Hebrew who was raised as an Egyptian. Moses grew up without a real sense of who he was and what he was, and the Israelites also had lost their sense of identity. Throughout the book of Exodus, though, we will see Moses and the people of Israel become stronger in their identity as they get to know Yahweh, their loving creator God, and experience his deliverance. They get stronger and stronger as a people as their understanding of God and their own selves becomes clearer.

In the same way, Jesus has brought about a New Exodus for us, as we today move from confusion to make a clear confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the son of the living God.” When we make that confession, the confusion about our own identity clears away, and we become the strong children of God we are called to be.

Continuing the story of Peter, Jesus not only gives Peter a new identity, but also a new calling:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18-19

The people of God are undergoing a New Exodus, and central to that plan of God to liberate his people is the Church. As we become clear in our confession and clear in our identity, we also become clear in our calling and purpose as the Church. We are engaged in a spiritual battle. Our battle is not political or physical. It is a spiritual battle waged against spiritual enemies with spiritual weapons and spiritual gifts.

Jesus phrased it as giving Peter keys. That’s an interesting analogy because the two basic things you do with keys are to open things and lock or unlock things. Jesus has given us the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” which are spiritual weapons that can unlock spiritual prisons and lock up spiritual enemies. “The gates of hell shall not prevail” against those of us who hold the keys!

Often we think of the Church as being on defense. We are a refuge or fortress against the crazy things that go on in the world outside. This is true about the Church, but there is more to it than that. Jesus is saying that his Church is on offense. They were standing in Caesarea Philippi, in the setting of a pagan site which was known as “the gate of hell.” Standing in that spot on enemy territory, Jesus was giving his disciples a commission to storm the very gates of hell and unseat the spiritual forces and powers of evil in his name. He has given us the very keys that will bind evil forever and loosen the chains of God’s people in this world.

Jesus gave us power through the Holy Spirit and the message of the gospel that will literally unseat Satan from the power of this world, and liberate those who are his captives. All of us who confess faith in Jesus have been given this rock-solid identity and calling. It is not based on gender, race, or politics, but solely on the person of Jesus Christ, for the sake and glory of his name.

O You of Little Faith

Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus to Peter, Matthew 14:31

These words are spoken to Peter by Jesus, but through Peter, they are also spoken to us. Our doubts are caused by something that is addressed many times throughout Scripture: fear.

In this passage, we see the fear of the disciples based on the difficulty of their situation. They have been sent by Jesus out onto the Sea of Galilee, and this body of water is known for being dangerous and even deadly to boaters when sudden storms kick up.

I had a moment out on a lake in Florida this summer where I think I felt something akin to what the disciples must have felt that day. I was out paddleboarding with a friend, and we saw something out on the water that could have been a person in distress. We went out to investigate and thankfully, it was just an unmanned raft. However, when we turned around to go back, we realized we were MUCH farther away from shore than we had intended to go. In order to get back home, we had to paddle a very long distance against the wind, and we were already tired. Obviously, we made it back, but at that moment of turning around and realizing how far we had to go, I felt true fear. The power of the wind and the waves felt very real and much stronger than me. I knew I could easily be overwhelmed. I think this is similar to what the disciples must have felt when they were out in that small boat and the storm blew in without warning.

They were in that boat, paddling against the strong wind, all night long. The Scripture describes them as being “beaten by the waves” (v. 24). I think this can easily be related to our own lives. The circumstances of our lives can sometimes beat us up. We feel stuck, trapped, abused, like we can never make progress.

One fascinating thing about these verses is that it never mentions them as feeling any fear related to the storm. The first time fear is mentioned is in verse 26, when they are terrified at seeing Jesus walking toward them on the water.

This brings me to one of the places where our small faith is revealed: in the very nature of Jesus himself. Do we really believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be, who the Scriptures say he is? This is a place where many of us have doubt, and the disciples did too, since they didn’t consider it might have been Jesus there on the water.

Jesus said to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (v. 27). It is very interesting to note that the words translated here as “It is I,” would be better translated as “I Am.” These are the same words that God used when revealing himself to Moses at the burning bush (See Exodus 3:14), and by using them, Jesus is declaring himself to be God in the flesh. He isn’t just saying, “It’s me, your friend.” He’s saying, “It’s me, your God.”

The name of God in Exodus 3:14 is what we pronounce as Yahweh, and we see it over and over again in reference to Jesus. His name itself means, “Yahweh saves” (Matthew 1:21), and we see the same “I Am” phrase repeated over and over in the discourse of Jesus himself: “I am the Bread of Life,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” “I am the resurrection and the life,” and many others.

Paul is making the same point in Romans 10. Paul takes the Old Testament verse from the Book of Joel, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord (Yahweh) will be saved,” and he makes it about Jesus. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (Yahweh)… you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

One of the most important things for any of us to gain is faith, not just any old kind of faith, but faith in the person of Jesus Christ. We have to believe he truly is who he says he is – God in the flesh, come to save his people from their sins. If we believe in this, we will be saved.

Going back to our Gospel passage from Matthew, we see that Peter didn’t exactly have that kind of faith. He sent out a challenge to test Jesus: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (14:28). And Jesus didn’t miss a beat, “Come.”

And then we see a further instance of doubt from Peter. He takes his eyes off Jesus and looks instead at his circumstances, begins to be overwhelmed by fear, and starts to sink. When we are walking in faith with Jesus, the most secure place to be is actually to continue in faith. Just keep your eyes fixed on Jesus (See Hebrews 12:2).

We all tend to start looking at our circumstances and getting afraid – our dwindling budgets, the overwhelming tasks we have to do, our own personal shortcomings. If we look at anything other than Jesus, we set ourselves up to sink.

I’m not saying we don’t need to be realistic about facts, but we have to remember where our salvation actually comes from. “Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Jesus has demonstrated again and again that he loves us, would do anything for us, and has the power to save us. He demonstrated his love by dying for us, and he proved his power by his resurrection.

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” is a great question for us to continually ask ourselves. In our lives, again and again, he has been there to save us when we call out to him.

When they got back into the boat, “those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God'” (14:33). The Lord Jesus Christ knows us very well. He knows we have little faith, and we have fear and doubt in our struggles. We are called to trust in his name and power, and call out to him to be saved. He will be there to save us every time we call.

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).