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?

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.

The Greeks Bring the Party

Sermon from John 12:20-36

This passage opens with the arrival of a group of Greeks to the Jewish feast, saying “We wish to see Jesus.” I’m reminded of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. My step-mother is from a Greek family, and so I am familiar with what a Greek party looks like, and that movie does not miss the mark. When Greeks show up, they bring the party! So although commentators debate at whether John meant actual Greeks or just generic Gentiles, I smile imagining a group of Greeks busting into this Jewish feast ready to party. So whether it was Greeks or Gentiles, the disciples of Jesus did not know what to do with them when they arrived.

However, when Philip and Andrew asked Jesus what to do about this group of Greeks, it seemed as if he didn’t even hear their question, for he started talking about what seemed like something completely different! Jesus replied to them with, “The hour has come…” (v. 23). This is actually a recurring theme in the Gospel of John – references to “the hour,” or the divine appointed timing of God. It was first mentioned at the Wedding at Cana when Jesus told his mother, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). There are several other moments in the Gospels when Jesus says things like, “The hour is coming…” and now we come to the end of his life and ministry, and “the hour has come.” It is time for the climax, the denouement, the moment that changes everything.

So what is the hour that has come? “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” At first this might sound awesome to Jesus’ listeners, but he goes on to explain what he means by using two illustrations. First, he compares himself to a grain of wheat. A grain of wheat has to fall to the earth and die in order to bear much fruit. A seed has to be broken apart and destroyed in order to bring forth more life. When Jesus says that this is the hour, he is talking about the cross. Only when he dies can he bring eternal resurrection life from the grave.

Jesus goes on to reflect on the meaning of laying down one’s life. He not only laid down his own life, but he calls his followers to lay down our lives as well. We lay down our fears, our material desires, our concerns of what people think of us, and yes, our physical safety. And in return, we gain eternal resurrected life. What an exchange!

Although this is a wonderful exchange, Jesus knows that it is difficult for us. It was difficult for him! After speaking of laying down his life like the grain of wheat, he directly tells us, “Now is my soul troubled” (v. 27). But he provided for us the example of what to do when our souls are troubled by fear and hardship. We pray for the Father to glorify his name. God hears and he responds, and he will indeed bring about glory through our suffering.

Jesus then switches illustrations and brings up the concept of being lifted up, which is another paradox. When we think of being lifted up, we think of encouragement, light, brightness, and adoration. But Jesus was speaking of the way he was about to die. Just like the death of the seed led to life, the death of Jesus brought about glory. Jesus references being lifted up three times in the Gospel of John. The first is in John 3:14, when he compares his own death to the way Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to save the Israelites from the curse of poisonous serpents (See Numbers 21:4-9). In the same way, looking to our Savior lifted on the cross will save from eternal death those of us who bear the curse of sin.

Isaiah 52-53 gives us a picture of this. Isaiah 52:13 says that God’s servant is wise and high and lifted up, but then verse 14 says that as he is lifted up, we can see that he is marred and disfigured. Isaiah 53 goes on to beautifully express how God’s Suffering Servant bore the weight of our sins in his own body. This is how Jesus was lifted up.

But what breaks forth from his suffering is a new covenant. He brings new life to a dead and dying world. With the cross, Satan is now a defeated foe. The power of our enemy has been stripped from him. The cross has broken the bondage of sin and death. As the Son of Man is lifted up, those who look to him find life.

Going back to the Greeks, these Greeks were a little early for the party that was coming with the resurrection of Christ. May they be representative of the people of God receiving and celebrating the glorious light that broke forth after the suffering and death of the Savior, the glorious salvation and freedom of the children of God, and the eternal resurrected life provided to those who look to him.

The Pigeons Must Go!

Sermon from John 2:13-25

Upon reading this story of Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2, my first thought was, “What did Jesus have against those pigeons?” Sure, pigeons make a mess, but did he have to get so upset? There is clearly more going on here. It is worth noting that although the other three Gospel writers placed this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry (In fact, that is what the Pharisees used as a pretext for Jesus’ arrest leading to his execution.), John places it right at the beginning of his Gospel account. So one theory is that John tells the events of Jesus’ life out of order to make points about theology rather than to tell a story from beginning to end. However, I also think it’s entirely possible that Jesus did this twice.

We know that Jesus was raised as a Jewish boy who often went to Jerusalem for the Passover, and so his last Passover was not the first time he had seen this commerce going on inside the temple. I suspect that every single time Jesus saw it, it bothered him. And it is not beyond imagining to think that the Jews of Jerusalem would go right back to doing things the old way even after having Jesus cleanse the temple once earlier in his ministry. So then we can imagine him coming back at the end of his ministry and being frustrated at finding them in their same old ways.

So what bothered him so much about this? First, let’s understand the practice. God-fearing people would make pilgrimages from all over to make sacrifices at the time of Passover. They might travel from far-flung places by ship or on foot, and it would be a challenge to bring your sacrificial animal with you on that pilgrimage. It made a lot of sense to wait to buy your sacrifice until you got there, and Jerusalem had a whole economy around raising flocks of animals to be temple sacrifices. In addition, since people were coming from many different places, they were bringing foreign currency with them, and they had to exchange their currency to the Jewish shekel in order to pay their temple tax while they were there. Therefore, having an animal market and money changers near the temple was very practical and convenient.

The problem came when these practical conveniences crept into the temple itself. The temple was meant to be a place of worship and prayer, and bringing these things inside the temple brought distraction. Imagine it being the same as when someone is talking behind you or knocks over their cup of coffee in church. It’s difficult to focus on worship when other things are going on around you, and the noise and smell of an animal market would certainly distract a person’s mind and heart from worship!

In addition, the Scripture indicates that there was also corruption going on. The animal vendors and money changers could make a ton of money by inflating their prices, which was selfish and irreverent to focus on personal gain rather than worship. And there could have been even more about this circumstance that was offensive to Jesus, but we do know that he was upset that they were not engaging in worship rightly. They were not giving God his due reverence.

So he overturned the tables of the vendors and drove the animals out with a whip, demanding that they remove their commerce from his Father’s house. It’s interesting that as Jesus’ disciples were watching him do this, a psalm of David came to their mind:

For zeal for your house has consumed me,
    and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting,
    it became my reproach.
When I made sackcloth my clothing,
    I became a byword to them.
I am the talk of those who sit in the gate,
    and the drunkards make songs about me.
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
    At an acceptable time, O God,
    in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.

Psalm 69:9-13

King David was kind of a mess with lots of sin and failures on his record, but one thing he had in his favor – he deeply loved the Lord. This psalm of David reflects that passion for the Lord’s reputation over his own. Repeatedly we saw in David’s story his willingness to risk the judgment and scorn of others, including his own wife (See 2 Samuel 6:1-23), to wholeheartedly worship the Lord. Unlike most of us, he was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and let all that he had in his heart – both good and bad – be seen by all. The rest of us tend to keep our internal struggles and failures hidden, trying to wear masks and pretend we don’t struggle. As my wife says, we judge ourselves by comparing our insides to others’ outsides. That never ends well.

This wholehearted abandon to the worship of the Lord is what made the disciples think of this psalm when Jesus was cleansing the temple. He wasn’t afraid of what any other person would think of him – he only cared about the glory of the Lord. Unlike David and unlike us, though, Jesus had nothing to hide on the inside. His motives were completely pure. He had nothing but absolute faithfulness to God.

This is one indicator of the heart of a faithful worshiper – they don’t care what others think of them. People who judge the worshipers of God are people who don’t understand God, and true worshipers just won’t let that bother them. A person coming to offer wholehearted worship to the Lord won’t care what anyone else thinks but only what God thinks. A wholehearted worshiper won’t want to please anyone else besides God.

The animal sellers and money changers were not true worshipers of God. They missed the heart of God. God is so jealous for the hearts of his people. He wants us to be wholly devoted only to him, much like a marriage vow. He faithfully keeps his covenant with his people, and he desires that same faithfulness from us. He will not share worship; he will not share our hearts.

Jesus was reacting to this unfaithfulness with passion and emotion, the same jealousy that God feels for the hearts of his people, and the temple leaders were put off by this. They challenged him, saying, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (v. 18). They didn’t think he had the right or the authority to act on behalf of God. However, Jesus’ answer was that he would destroy the temple and raise it again in three days. His listeners at the time completely misunderstood his meaning, but later they would realize that he was speaking of the temple of his body, which he did raise again three days after it was destroyed.

Jesus came to give us a new temple, where the abiding living presence of God dwells within his people, not in a building of stone. The indwelling Spirit of God empowers our hearts to be wholly devoted to him.