Sermon: Life is a Highway

The Lord is coming! How can we prepare for his arrival? The prophet Isaiah tells us that our lives need to be leveled and straightened to make them like a great highway. For the Lord to travel straight into our hearts, the call is to repentance.

Sermon: Life is a Highway preached at Church of St. John the Divine in Houston, TX on 5 December 2021. Come visit: https://www.sjd.org/

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,[a]
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

The Vision and the Voice of the Bridegroom

How does Jesus see us? What does he think about us? While the Church militant has been ravaged by false teaching, divisions, persecution, and trial, her beloved Bridegroom reveals a glimpse of a glorious coming day of delight in her. He speaks a word of encouragement to give us hope as we labor on through the great tribulation.

Sermon Preached November 7, 2021 at Church of St. John the Divine in Houston, TX • The Rev. Charlie Holt • Revelation 21:1-6

Come visit: https://www.sjd.org/

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 

New Jerusalem by Joni Zavitsanos, 2019. https://jonizavitsanos.com/

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.

Applied Theology of the Cross

Jesus taught his disciples the nature of his messianic mission three times as mission of death and resurrection. Not only was this path applied to him but also to the individual disciple he called, the community he built, and the leaders he developed.

Applied Theology of the Cross Sermon on Mark 10:32-45

Sermon preached at St. John the Divine in Houston, TX on 17 October 2021. Come visit: https://www.sjd.org/

Mark 10:32-42 (ESV Version)

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark 10:45

The Marriage Trap

Marriage can be a foretaste of heaven on earth or it can be a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. There are divine resources available to our marriages that will keep them from feeling like a miserable prison. The Lord purposes that your marriage will be a source of tremendous freedom, abundant blessing, mutual joy, and life.

The Rev. Charlie Holt, The Marriage Trap preached at Church of St. John the Divine in Houston, TX: 3 October 2021. Come visit: https://www.sjd.org/

Sermon on Mark 10:1-16

And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

Sermon: Changing Lives for God in Christ

Jesus calls his disciples to a transformational mission.

The challenge for them was to capture the vision, scope, and heart of his plan. They often missed it. Let us not miss the life-changing mission that God has for us right under our noses if we will only have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

Changing Lives for God in Christ: Sermon on Mark 9:33-37

Sermon preached at St. John the Divine in Houston, TX on 19 September 2021. Come visit: https://www.sjd.org/

Mark 9:33-37 (ESV Version)

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Is Jesus challenging you today? What question are you too afraid to answer, and what answer are you too afraid to give? And what is the mission to which God is calling you to engage that is right under your nose?

Persevering Faith

Enduring the Hard Struggle

Hebrews 10:32-39

32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For,

“Yet a little while,
    and the coming one will come and will not delay;
38 but my righteous one shall live by faith,
    and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”

39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

Members of the early Church endured many contests and struggles of suffering. They were made a public spectacle, berated with insults, and faced persecution. Yet, they stood in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Christ in prison and strived to joyfully bear the plundering of their property.

How did they get through such loss? By continually reminding themselves of God’s promise of a better possession. Their faith was strengthened by the courage and confidence required of them in trials. When we aren’t forced to stand strong publicly for the faith, it’s actually easier to fall away. It can be a greater challenge to hold fast to Christ in times of blessing and abundance than in times of persecution. The preacher reminds his readers how they survived tough times with boldness and joy in order to encourage them to stand firm for the long haul, during easier times when the struggle and burden seem lighter.

The Lord’s aim is that we stay connected to him though the best and worst of times. Do not shrink back from communion and intimacy with the Lord. Earlier, the preacher had exhorted:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for
he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one
another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as
is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more
as you see the Day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:23-25

The key to staying connected to the Lord is faith—have faith and preserve your soul. But the ground of our faith is not ourselves, but the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. Up to this point in the book of Hebrews, whenever faith is mentioned, it is always in reference to the faithfulness of God to us through Jesus Christ. We hold fast “because he who has promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23). We were also challenged to consider the faithfulness of Jesus in Hebrews 2:17, when he is described as “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” Jesus’ faithfulness included taking on frail flesh and blood in order that he might sympathize with us in our weakness and sufferings. He is the One who can help us in our weakness, “if we will draw near to him” (Hebrews 4:12).

We live in a sinful and fallen world. Living as a Christian in such a hostile environment involves struggle and suffering. Being a Christian is no longer cool—it is not cool in our schools or our workplaces. Christians are often seen as ignorant and stubborn enemies to progress. They are shamed into silence in schools and universities when they insist on the centrality of God. They are quieted into submission in the workplace because expressions of faith are considered inappropriate and offensive to others. In social settings, Christians pursuing holiness of life are considered out of touch and out of place by those reveling in the depravity of our world.

The writer to the Hebrews is reminding his readers of the persecutions they and earlier Christians faced to inspire them to hold fast. He describes their plight as a “hard struggle with sufferings” (Hebrews 10:32). But now, that persecution had subsided. They were getting back to “life as usual.” And “life as usual” meant the danger of slipping back into pre- conversion patterns and a worldly way of living.

Have you noticed in your own life that it can be easier to be a person of faith, hope, and love when you’re going through a time of persecution than it is during times of peace? In times of plenty, it is easy to take the Lord and his people for granted and to gradually slip away.

I remember after 9/11, churches were packed. The entire Congress of the United States—Democrats and Republicans—came out on the steps of the Capitol together and sang God Bless America. So much of our nation was united in seeking the Lord’s peace in that crisis. But after the months went by—it didn’t take long—people slipped back into ordinary life again, often without thought of God. The wakeup call had come with suffering but ended soon after.

Ground Zero cross
A photo of a cross from mangled metal taken by Anne Bybee about three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, on the backside of Ground Zero.

What kind of persecutions have you endured that awakened your need for God? What kind of sufferings have you gone through that brought you closer to the Lord? Have there been times in your life when you drifted away? What do you think was going on with you in respect to your circumstances?

We need to be reminded of our past faithfulness during struggles and draw from those memories to find strength for the now. The faith and trust the Hebrew Christians had in days of persecution, says the preacher, can serve as a foundation for vigorous faith now. But he is worried about their faltering. He is concerned that they are shrinking back and falling away under lesser pressures.

Beware when you find it easy to take God for granted. As you get older and older, and the years go by, do not lose heart and become discouraged. As you see the schisms in the Church over cultural, social, racial, and political agendas and the corruption in Church leadership, it can be easy to get disheartened. When you witness friends falling away, giving up on engagement with the church, and returning to a worldly lifestyle, it may be tempting to do the same thing. The questions can haunt us: Why am I still hanging on? Why do I continue to worship every week? Why am I still doing this Christian work? Why do I keep shepherding these sheep who are biting me?

It’s hard. It’s hard to hang in there with the Church over the years. When you have been part of it for 20, 30, 40, 50 years or more, you’ve “been there, done that” and it can be a challenge to keep on.

The reminder of the book of Hebrews is that there is an end to the challenge, the trials, and the tribulations! There will be a day when the biting sheep stop biting:

“ For yet ‘in a very little while,
the one who is coming will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one will live by faith.
My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back’”

Hebrews 10:38, NRSV

So what the writer of Hebrews is challenging us to have is faith. To hang in there with God’s promises, to believe them and to trust in what Jesus did for us and the grace he gives us now. If you are in a place of faithful intimacy, great! Stay connected to the Lord. Stay in that intimate holy place. Guard your life in his holiness and maintain accountable fellowship with other Christians; you will not shrink back or fall away.

Reflection:

Are you in a posture of deliberate sinning? Have you fallen out of the habit of regular worship? Have you allowed discouragement over an apathetic church to make you apathetic about Christ? Know that God delights in the steadfast! If you feel like throwing in the towel, remind yourself that God wants to help you endure and persevere. Our faithfulness is a sign of Christ’s faithfulness being perfected in us. When you are tempted to slip away, allow the warnings of the preacher to spur you to repentance. Such back sliding is not characteristic of believers, he says: “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved” (Hebrews 10:39 NRSV).

Keep on keeping on!

This post is excerpted from Draw Near: Hebrews on Christian Worship by The Rev. Charlie Holt (Houston, TX: Bible Study Media, 2019) 113-116.

Washing the Inside Out

Sermon on clean and unclean from Mark 7

It is easy to mistake having your religious act together for spiritual maturity. The heart of true religion is a matter of the heart. The Lord came to make the unclean clean from the inside out. May his heart be ours.


Sermon preached at St. John the Divine on 28 August 2021. Visit: https://www.sjd.org/

Join the Spiritual Battle

We are in a spiritual battle as God is using us as the Christian church to reconcile the world to himself and liberate the people of this world from the bondage to sin and Satan. Put on the full armor of God!


Sermon preached at St. John the Divine on 22 August 2021. Visit: https://www.sjd.org/

For more on Spiritual Warfare: https://revcharlieholt.com/sending-satan-on-his-way/

The Fellowship of Light

Sermon from 1 John 1:1-2:6

We have now entered into the period of the church calendar between Easter and Pentecost, known as “The Great 50 Days.” In the year of the Lord’s resurrection, this period was one of great intimacy with the Lord for the early Church, because the resurrected Savior was physically present with them on the earth. They could see him, touch him, and eat with him. This intimacy with the resurrected Lord became the foundation of the apostles’ enduring faith, and the basis upon which the apostle John wrote his first epistle.

The early apostles had the privilege of being tangibly present with God in the flesh, something which none of the rest of us since then have been able to experience. John knew that not many were able to experience that, and so he proclaimed plainly that he himself had seen and touched the Lord:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.

1 John 1:1-2

It’s the same concept as the way John opened his Gospel, with an expression of the physical presence of God among his people:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

John 1:14

Following Jesus was not just a theory or a philosophy. It was a tangible experience with a living person. After the ascension of Jesus in his physical resurrected body, the mission of the disciples was to transition the Church from following the physical person of Jesus to BEING the physical manifestation of Jesus in this world through the fellowship of believers, also known as the body of Christ. That’s a challenging transition!

John wanted to emphasize that believers can still have a physical, tangible encounter with Jesus through his people, the Church.

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

1 John 1:3-4

John goes on to clarify that if we want to walk in fellowship with the Lord, we have to walk as children of the light. He explains that the fundamental of problem of why we are estranged from God is that we love the darkness; we love to hide from God, to lie, and to stay in our sin. This is why Jesus came – to deal with the sin that kept us separated from God.

I can testify to this in my own life. When I was younger, I enjoyed living a self-focused, hedonistic lifestyle. But when I was a junior in college, I began attending a Bible study, and suddenly through my encounters with the Word of Life and the people of God, I began to feel all sorts of conviction about the things that were wrong in my life. However, the more obvious my own sins became, the more I wanted to distance myself from the people of God. Not knowing how to deal with my sin, I wanted to just avoid the conflict I felt when my attention was drawn to the things that separated me from God and from his people. This is exactly what John was talking about.

Do you ever notice that in a church, it’s usually the back row that fills up first? People want to get just inside the door, but not risk getting too close for fear of exposure. Darkness is exposed by the light, and that becomes really uncomfortable. Sinners would prefer to stay in darkness.

The apostle John, however, calls us to press in to the fellowship of the light. This is what Jesus came to do for us.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

1 John 1:7-8

If we will embrace fellowship with God and with God’s people, he will reveal our sin and provide the way to cleanse us from them.

God longs to bring us back into a restored relationship with him. He knows and understands our weaknesses and failures. But he has made the way for us to be brought back into fellowship through his Son.

John speaks tenderly to the recipients of his letter:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2

Jesus has made the way for us to be restored to the Father, for us to be safe with him rather than wanting to hide from him. When we live in his fellowship, we are filled with his light, with his power, with his fullness. Move past the discomfort to receive his forgiveness and salvation, and walk as a child of the light today.

Looking to the Pierced One

Good Friday Sermon from John 19

One argument that skeptics have used against the death and resurrection of Jesus is called “swoon theory,” meaning that they think Jesus wasn’t actually dead when they took him from the cross, but rather he had fainted or was in a coma. Or in the words of Miracle Max from the movie The Princess Bride, he was only “mostly dead,” meaning he was partly alive and not beyond saving. However, a close look at John 19 disproves this theory.

But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.

John 19:33-34

Modern science now understands that when a person dies and their body remains still, their blood separates into the heavier clot and the lighter serum. When Jesus’ body was pierced, John saw the gush of these separated liquids: first the red blood and then the light serum, what John described as water. This is proof that this body was dead – a living person’s blood does not separate.

John used the two facts that they did not break Jesus’ legs and that they pierced him with a spear not only to prove that Jesus was actually dead on the cross, but that he was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. In verse 35, John testifies that he saw these two things with his own eyes. Then in verses 36 and 37, he quotes the prophetic Scriptures that he is now applying to Jesus:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.

Psalm 34:19-20

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.

Zechariah 12:10

During Holy Week, we frequently meditate on prophecies of the Messiah. We focus on passages like Isaiah 52-53 about God’s Suffering Servant or Psalm 22, which Christ himself spoke from the cross. However, Zechariah has a lot to say to us during this time as well. The book of Zechariah is filled with prophecies about the events of Holy Week. Zechariah was a prophet and leader in Israel in the time when the Israelites were returning from exile and beginning to rebuild their nation in Jerusalem.

On one hand, this was a time of great hope for Israel because it seemed like things were turning around for them. They were able to leave Babylon and return to their homeland. The people wondered if now was when God was going to usher in his Messianic Kingdom. On the other hand, they saw Jerusalem and the temple lying in ruins, and there was also a great sense of discouragement at the huge task that was before them.

I think we can relate to this feeling right now. The world is just beginning to come out of the exile we have been in because of coronavirus. Life was changed for us drastically, and now we are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel that it may be coming to an end. However, there are so many things that have to be rebuilt. We have been through so much grief and loss, and our lives have been so utterly changed. Will we be able to go back?

As a pastor, I believe a time of hopeful transition is actually a time to take very close care of my congregation. Strange things can happen to people’s hearts, minds, and lives during times of great change, even change for the better. There is a chance that now may be a time of great revival and reformation for our nation and world, but maybe not. It depends on whether the people of God will be faithful in this moment. Just because things are looking up, we can’t become careless with our faith and trust in God. It’s actually more dangerous at this moment that we may slip back into business as usual and forget God.

Zechariah’s book contains first a series of prophetic visions, then a series of poetic sermons. In these, we find many images foreshadowing Jesus, such as the priest who bears the guilt of his people (3:1-5), the priest who is then crowned king to rule (6:9-15), and the humble king who rides on a donkey’s colt (9:9). The parallel gets even stronger in chapters 10-13, where God condemns the false shepherds of Israel and comes down to be their shepherd himself, but is then rejected, betrayed (for thirty pieces of silver! See 11:12-13.), and killed by those false shepherds. However, through the death of the good shepherd, the people are cleansed from sin and idolatry.

From this side of history, there is no question that Zechariah’s entire book of prophecy was pointing to Jesus. Zechariah challenged his readers then, and his words still challenge us now, to recognize the righteous one sent from God and look to him, the one who was pierced. From his broken body flowed not only blood and water, but also streams of living water for the cleansing, healing, and salvation of the world.

In John 19:35, John explains clearly why he outlines these things in his Gospel: “that you also may believe.” Place your trust in the one who was pierced for your transgressions. Look upon him, and through his suffering, find salvation for your soul and cleansing for your heart, mind, and spirit. Allow the flow of God’s Spirit to bring you life in him.