On the Plains of Moab Blog
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October 4, 2012, 9:17 AM

1+1=The Gospel

Please pardon the soap box here.  I felt that there were a few things that I needed to say in conclusion to the two sermons preached in the previous two weeks.

I do not write this because of any blowback from Sunday.  Quite to the contrary, the response has generally been very positive and kind.  I write because I want to make sure, before I move on to the next sermon series, that I clarify some important points that I want to define the whole endeavor.

First of all, I want to underscore the importance of living out the Christian life in grace, compassion and forgiveness.  We know that loving our neighbors as ourselves is one of the marks that serves as a summary for all of Scripture.  We must balance behavior and belief together so that they sing a beautiful song with our lives, both faithful and godly.  This is why I want to suggest to you that you must read both sermons together:  "Can't Be Good; Be Good Anyway" (Sept. 23) AND "Here I Stand" (Sept. 30).  Can't have one without the other.

Secondly, I did not in anyway intend that my firm words in this past Sunday's sermon to be construed as meaning that the Presbyterian Church (USA) teaches that there is no God or that we must throw away our Bibles.  As I mentioned in the sermon, "Let me state at the outset that this is not about Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.  Us vs. Them.  Christian vs. Non-Christian.  This is about attending to the seriousness of Paul's words we heard a few moments ago.  He said. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.... (1 Cor. 15:3-4 ESV).  Do we believe that?  Do we cherish that?  Every Sunday at communion we hear these words, For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.... (1 Cor. 11:23 ESV).  What we receive from the Lord -- his Word -- is what we take forward faithfully.  Are we willing to do that?"

My words were intended as a call to a serious and sober critique of where we are as a Church.  As I said of Luther, and which I believe of my own Presbyterian Church, it is "understood that the Church, while filled with fine, well-meaning people desiring to follow Jesus Christ, nevertheless, [has] gone off the track....The Church seem[s] fueled by imagination and innovation rather than the will of God expressed in Scripture."

Thirdly, I want to offer an opportunity in the Connections Sunday School class over the next three Sundays, an opportunity to raise questions and concerns about the issues before us.  This is a time of listening and praying and talking.  I invite you to join us for this discussion.  This is an important matter and we need all of our voices weighing in.

I say again to you, what we believe is important.  How we behave is important. 

October 2, 2012, 4:54 AM

Sermon Text

September 30, 2012. The State of the Church, Part II "Here I Stand" by Cameron Smith

Your Word is Truth

I want to open this morning with a historical note from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  The reason for this illustration being that the message I need to deliver to you is somewhat akin to Martin Luther’s experience when he appeared before the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521.

In the four years preceding the Diet, Luther found fame and notoriety for taking on a number of practices within the Roman Catholic Church.  Luther had penned the 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg castle questioning the practice of selling indulgences.  He wrote popular, but controversial books:  He called for the abolition of celibacy in the priesthood.  He thought it an abomination to hold a mass for the dead.  He argued that monks and nuns ought to be freed from their vows which were made under public duress.  He railed against the practice of withholding the cup from the people in the Eucharist.  He rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation in that he denied that the communion elements actually became in substance the body and blood of Christ during mass.  He claimed that the mass itself was a re-sacrifice of Jesus Christ all over again and need not be done.  And of course, as he grasped anew Romans and Galatians, began to articulate the great Reformation understanding of justification by faith alone.  It didn't help Luther's case at all that he called out the pope as the anti-Christ!

So, on Wednesday, April 17, 1521 at 4:00 pm, Luther was lead to the "green room" just off the main room at the Diet of Worms.  He was kept waiting for two whole hours before he could meet with the Holy Roman Emperor to answer for his books.  At 6:00 pm, he was lead into a large, dimly lit, smoky room.  There were Spanish soldiers, spears in hand, stationed along each wall.  Before him was a table in the middle of the room with all of his books.  High above him sat the Emperor, Charles V.  The pope's imperial prosecutor, Johann von Eck, then addressed Luther.  He points to Luther's books on the table and asks, "Are these your books?"  "Yes."  "Will you recant?"

Luther replies nervously, "Can I have 24 hours to think about it?"  He seeks comfort in the Scriptures and asks himself agonizingly, "Am I alone?  "Are 1500 years of wrong?"  He concludes that he's right.  The next day before the emperor, the same questions again from Dr. von Eck:  "Are these your books?"  "Will you recant?"

Luther replies, "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures...for my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything....I cannot do otherwise.  Here I stand, may God help me."

Luther understood that the Church, while filled with fine, well-meaning people desiring to follow Jesus Christ, nevertheless, had gone off the track at some point.  The Church seemed fueled by imagination and innovation rather than the will of God expressed in Scripture.

I present this historical sketch because I think it fits so well within our own present historical context.  I want to speak frankly this morning about the denomination to which this church belongs, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Let me state at the outset that this is not about Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.  Us vs. Them.  Christian vs. Non-Christian.  This is about attending to the seriousness of Paul's words we heard a few moments ago.  He said. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.... (1 Cor. 15:3-4 ESV).  Do we believe that?  Do we cherish that?  Every Sunday at communion we hear these words, For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.... (1 Cor. 11:23 ESV).  What we receive from the Lord -- his Word -- is what we take forward faithfully.  Are we willing to do that?

It is our call as the ongoing expression of the Church of Jesus Christ to place ourselves under the Word of God.  To be taught by it.  To be corrected by it.  This must be our posture no matter how unpopular or naive this might be to the skeptical inquisitors that surround us.

Way back at the turn of the twentieth century, our Presbyterian Church, the northern stream of it to be exact -- had a crisis in the presbytery of New York.  During the examination of three candidates for the ministry, they refused to affirm the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.  At the next General Assembly in 1910, the Assembly refused to over-rule their ordinations, but did instruct the Committee on Bills and Overtures to draft a statement that would spell out the required bar of belief for future ministerial candidates.

The Committee came up with what became known as the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  It set out five articles of faith judged to be "essential and necessary."  Now they recognized that the faith wasn't defined solely by these five, and this is why they appended the five with the phrase that "others are equally so...."  These five basic tenets formed a solid baseline of belief for those who would assume a Presbyterian pulpit.

These then were the five held up for our candidates:

1. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of the Holy Scriptures as to keep them from error.  This is perhaps better understood in these days as the authority of Scripture.  This is God's expressed will written.  This doesn't require us to approach the Bible as a science text book.  It doesn't demand that we come to the Bible as if it was a magic lantern that needed to be rubbed for three wishes.

The authority of Scripture means recognizing that this book is the record of God's involvement with the world.  It is the sure revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  It is the way we know how to please God.  It is the way we know what does not please God.  It is the way that we know that this life isn't just one darn thing after another.  When we reject or wear lightly the authority of Scripture or try to dissect it like a pithed frog, we are bound to knock ourselves off the path.

2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  Seems like an insignificant detail here; surely not essential.  However, behind this cherished belief is the reality that God condescended to wrap himself in human flesh.  He became one of us, and yet, as the incredible circumstances of his birth display, he was yet still God.  Lose the virgin birth and you lose the awe and mystery of Immanuel.  Jesus was not merely a good man.  He was not merely a good teacher.  He was not merely an extraordinary prophet.  He was not merely a wise philosopher.  He was certainly all of those things!  But he was so much more.  The long promised messiah of God's people.  The long expected son of David.  God in human flesh.  The virgin birth is the exclamation point of this great truth.

3. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that Christ offered up "himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and to reconcile us to God."  This is about the atonement of Jesus on the cross.  That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.  Jesus was not some sort of tragic martyr who became an unwitting victim of Roman justice.  He didn't die so that we might only see the depth of sacrificial love.  This was a self-offering.  This was deal sealing offering.  This was the once for all time, never to be repeated offering for the sin of the world.  When we look at the cross, we are reminded of the great cost of our sin.  The deadliness of our sin.  The seriousness of our sin.  The atonement drives home our great need and how God answered that great need.

4. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, concerning our Lord Jesus, that "on the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered; with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession."  This is about resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus.  Ultimately our own resurrection and the renewal of all creation.  Listen to the way Paul describes the importance of resurrection in 1 Cor. 15.  ...If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised....And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:13-15, 17-19 ESV).

5. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme Standard of our faith, that the Lord Jesus showed his power and love by working mighty miracles. This working was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.  This tenet, I want to strongly suggest to you is about more than miracles.  It is saturated with the flavor of God really and truly coming in Jesus Christ.  You see, the world is -- as should be evidentially obvious to any with two eyes and two ears fully functioning -- fallen.  The creation groans for the day of redemption.  We sin.  We get sick.  We fail in all aspects of human personal interaction.  We die.  In all of these things, the miracles of Jesus are God's mighty interventions to give a preview; a foretaste of the life that he brings and will bring.  A down-payment.  That all of creation will be renewed from its current state of fallen-ness.  Sin will be reversed.  The lame will walk.  The blind will see.  The dead will rise.  That's what the miracles are all about -- not some cheesy display of heavenly shock and awe, or Jesus saying for the heck of it, "Hey y'all, look at me!"  The miracles are the touch from the Master's Hand.


It is sobering to realize that these basics in the Faith -- things that were considered no brainers from my own youth, were controversial in the Presbyterian Church of the day.  They were severely contested and finally dropped at the 1927 General Assembly.  It's not that the Presbyterian Church (USA) denied these five beliefs; it's just that they wanted to be more open to other possible ways to understand the Faith.  More inclusive.  More tolerant.  As a result, the Presbyterian Church (USA) states officially that there are indeed essential beliefs in the Church - - we just don't know what they are because they have never been identified.  (And never will be.)

As we look at the last 85 years of Presbyterian history, it has been one of incessantly pushing the proverbial envelope.  It has been one of stretching the theological boundaries as far as they will go, sometimes dropping all pretense to obedience in some cases.  In a dance with a culture that desperately needs the Good News of Jesus Christ, we have been content to follow the lead of culture instead of leading that culture.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) that we inhabit today is, I would suggest, the fruit of seeds planted long ago.  When you deny the most basic, foundational truths of Christianity, then it is only a matter of time when you lose it altogether.

When I decided to come back to the Presbyterian Church of my youth back in 1997, there was a high tide of hope that renewal could happen in our Church.  The General Assembly of that year had miraculously passed what became known as the "Fidelity and Chastity" amendment for the officers of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  It said, Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.  Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

However, like the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910, which was contentiously in effect for 17 years, "Fidelity and Chastity" lasted merely 14 years.  It was dropped by the General Assembly in 2010 and sealed by a majority of presbyteries in July 2011.

The latest issue in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is now the battle over the meaning of marriage.  Our Church is on a trajectory to replace the language of marriage in our Directory for Worship.  It is currently read as a civil contract between a man and a woman.  The proposed language would be a civil contract between two people.

This has not happened...yet.  Last summer's General Assembly was bitterly divided.  As a mediating measure, they settled on instructing the presbyteries to study the issue of marriage.  For many in our Church, this is a gray area.

Please understand that the controversy before us in the Presbyterian Church today is not just about sex.  On a wider level, you simply cannot take it for granted anymore that the Presbyterian minister in the pulpit on a given Sunday will affirm the most basic truths so clear in Scripture.  We have many ministers who deny the authority of Scripture and at the same time see no conflict of interest in preaching week in and week out.  We have ministers who think of Jesus as no more than a good, inspiring man; but still a dead man.  We have ministers who scoff at the atonement as a relic of a barbaric past.  We have ministers who deny the reality of miracles and yet still mouth the words to the Apostles' Creed each Sunday.

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today can't unequivocally name all sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman for the sin that it is?

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today can't define the meaning of marriage to a morally confused world?

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today can't say "Jesus is Lord" without at the same time being fearful that someone, somewhere, somehow will take offense?

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today can take up every sort of political and social cause with great gusto while simultaneously downgrading our church planting missionary presence in the world?

Is it really any wonder then that the Presbyterian Church (USA) today is hemorrhaging congregations and individual members by the thousands each year?

My dear friends, I feel like Luther at Worms.  I must stand before you today and nervously and fearfully say to you, I can't go where our Church is going.

I want to invite you in on a conversation that your Session has been having since early February of this year.  We are struggling.  We are reluctant.  We are at great pains and saddened that it is even necessary to talk about a future outside of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

We have been in a season of discernment together.  We have prayed.  We have studied.  We have discussed the issues among ourselves.  We do not know where all this will lead, but we want to be faithful and we want to join our hearts with you as we discern together what we should do.

With Luther, I say to you "I am bound  by the Scriptures...for my conscience is captive to the Word of God....I cannot do otherwise.  Here I stand, may God help me."


October 1, 2012, 5:29 PM

Thank You!

I am thinking about yesterday.  I am thinking of the heavy load of bricks that we dumped on the floor.  I am thinking about how much I hated -- yes I said hated -- preaching that sermon.  I had a heavy heart all morning.  I think I was hoping that it would all just go away and everything could continue just the way it always has.


It won't.  The issues that surround us are real.  They are serious.  And it's never going to be the same.  My heart breaks for all of the renewal efforts that have gone on faithfully in our denomination for many years.  However, when you are bleeding members and churches that are tired of the fighting, well, then, you get the picture.

We need to talk.  We need to pray.  We need to talk much more.  Your Session is opening up an opportunity for both prayer and discussion.  The next three Tuesday nights, the Session will host listening sessions for questions and sharing of concerns.  October 2nd, 9th and 16th.  Each night at 7:00 pm at the church.  You may also call any of them if you wish to speak more privately.  But, share your heart with us.  We need everyone in this to discern a future to live into.  Wherever that might be...or not be.  But, we must determine where we stand.  What kind of church are we?  What will define us?

Big thoughts.  We need a big God for this.  And we have Him!

On a more personal note.  Thanks for the love that I felt on Sunday.  I came across this on a blog in my newsfeed:

"Your pastor needs you to love him…even when he makes mistakes.  Do you love your pastor? Do you thank God for the person God has sent to lead your church? Here’s a more important question: does your pastor know you love him? I can tell you that there are many pastors today that wonder if anyone cares for them. Most pastors hear far more complaints than they hear encouragement. Everyone always shares burdens with the pastor, but few people stop just to share love with their pastor." (from Ron Edmondson, 5 Things Your Pastor Needs).

I want you to know, I do not feel neglected or unappreciated or unloved as a pastor.  This congregation wrapped its collective arms around me and my family yesterday.  It was simply beyond description.  I was low before I stepped into the pulpit, and I was low as I departed it 30 minutes later.  But, you were there.  And I thank you.  Really.

September 28, 2012, 11:22 AM

A Confession


This entry is a reprint from our October Newsletter:

This is soul searching time.  You know preachers have a reputation for pontificating on the problems of the world from the pulpit.  It is all too easy to gripe about what's wrong with the world.  It is too easy to find examples of how people have failed to be faithful to God.  This is especially true with the household of God.  The people who claim to have a relationship with God.  The Church has historically been a wayward bunch.  However, as I reflect on where we are now as a Church here in the United States -- particularly our situation in the Presbyterian Church (USA), it strikes me that the Church's own ministers might be the real leaders of the pack.

The calling of a minister is to proclaim the Gospel of God's salvation in Jesus Christ.  We are supposed to be heralds of the Truth, no matter how unpopular that might be.  We are supposed to be the ones who teach people God's ways.  The ones who live it out before the congregation.  The one's who can lovingly correct.  The ones who can winsomely explain why the hot trend or current prevailing opinion in the larger society is simply out of line with the will of God as it is revealed in Scripture.

However, looking at the landscape of our current Church -- big picture -- I see that our culture is having a fairly one-sided conversation with the Church.  The culture is preaching it's own brand of the gospel, and the Church is for the most part, falling over itself trying to be relevant and "with it."

For the most part, our pulpits are silent in response to the chest-thumping, "gotcha" games being played out in the public square.  Why?  Don't want to touch hot potatoes.  Don't want to stir it up.  Don't want to disrupt the peace.  Don't want to get into the internal politics of the Church.

What is the result of our silence?

Well, confusion.

That might be putting it mildly.

Perhaps I should say impotence?

Yes, that is closer to the truth!

In 1987, J.I. Packer's great treatment on life in the modern-day Church, Hot Tub Religion, said it vividly in the preface to that book that preachers were supposed to be the plumbers of the Church.  When there is a leak in the pipes, the plumber fixes it.  Ergo, when the Church springs a leak in its theology or understanding of God's Word, the preacher, like the plumber, fixes the leak so that truth might once again flow freely and strongly, unimpeded by the various, divergent paths formed by the gaping holes.

And so, I repent of my silence.  May God give us the strength to speak and live the Truth in grace and love.

September 27, 2012, 4:08 PM

Sermon Texts for Sunday

This Sunday, I will be going fairly topical.  The text is listed as John 17:13-18.  However, I will be reading seven passages this Sunday.  The theme will be obvious to all.  I give it to you now so that you can read and meditate upon what God has given to us.  His beautiful, sufficient Word.  Why have we mangled it so?

Here they are:

  • ...[T]hese things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.  I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:13-18 ESV)
  • For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, (1 Cor. 15:3-4 ESV)
  •  ...[S]ince you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever." And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23-25 ESV)
  •  For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.  And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:16-21 ESV)
  • Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.  For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard....
  • For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb. 2:1-3; 4:12 ESV)
  • I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19 ESV)



September 25, 2012, 2:24 PM

Sermon Replay

I am making the text of last Sunday's sermon available on the blog today.  I think it is important that this be placed front and center so that we know what kind of church we are, or at least aspire to be!  We live in a world that demands that we tow the cultural line.  But, as Christians, we do have a different standard.  Now, this message that I post today is a reminder of how we live out God's Truth.  In our desire to be biblical, we sometimes forget the things that I touched upon Sunday.


September 23, 2012.  The State of the Church, Part I  "Can't Be Good; Be Good Anyway."  Romans 12:9-21

I came across a rather provocative blog post from Southern Baptist pastor and author Thom Rainer the other day.  The title of the post was "Seven Common Comments Non-Christians Make About Christians."  Let me share two of them with you right now:

#1  Christians are against more things than they are for.  "It just seems to me that Christians are mad at the world and mad at each other.  They are so negative that they seem unhappy.  I have no desire to be like them and stay upset all the time."

#4  I don't see much difference in the way Christians live compared to others.  "I really can't tell what a Christian believes because he doesn't seem much different than other people I know.  The only exception would be Mormons.  They really seem to take their beliefs seriously."

There seems to be a radical disconnect between what Christians say they believe and how they actually behave.  Christians love the saying, "I'm just a sinner saved by grace."  "But by the grace of God, there go I."  "I'm not perfect; just forgiven."

Now, from a Presbyterian and Reformed perspective, we are much more sophisticated in our excuses.  You see, we take our theology very seriously.  We recognize that salvation is by grace and grace alone.  We know by heart Isaiah's famous words, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment. (Isa. 64:6 NAU).  We love Paul's use of the Psalms when he says, "There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one." (Rom. 3:10-12 NAU).  We also know well these other important words, For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it .is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8-9 ESV).

Now, there you have it.  A primer on a Reformed understanding of salvation and life.  You can't earn your salvation.  No amount of good works will ever buy you a place in heaven.  That is called works righteousness, and that just won't cut it with God.

And the truth is, ...that is the truth.  You can't be good enough to earn your salvation.  That's the whole purpose of Jesus coming in the first place:  To offer his perfect life for your sin-stained life by dying for you so that you might be reconciled with God.

But, what I want to suggest to you today is, the Bible also teaches:  But be good anyway!  That passage from Ephesians that I just quoted was quoted halfway, For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8-10 ESV).

Take a look again at our text from Romans 12 this morning.  Let love be genuine.  Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.  Love one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor....Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them....Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all....Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:9-10, 14, 17-18, 21 ESV).

I could add a whole lot to those thoughts.  We could talk about the greatest commandment and the second one like it -- love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  We could go to the Sermon on the Mount.  We could talk about the fruit of the Spirit.  We could go to the book of James and re-learn that faith apart from works is dead.  And on and on.  The Bible really does teach you can't be good; but be good anyway!

Next week, I plan to preach on what we believe.  I'm going to talk about some of the essential things that the Christian Church has held to tightly for some 2,000 years, passing it on faithfully from generation to generation.  But, I thought it important to set that sermon up with a reaffirmation of what Christians with the truth should look like.  And, I want to commend some thoughts to you for reflection this morning that I do not want you to ever forget, no matter what we go through together.

Based on what we read in the Scriptures about the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, these are four non-negotiable marks of New Hope Presbyterian Church:

1.  The doors to this church will always be open to anybody and everybody.  No matter where they are in life; their economic status; their race, color, creed, living arrangements or sexual preferences.  We are called to proclaim the good news of the Gospel; and every man, woman and child should have the opportunity to hear of the transforming, life changing message of Jesus Christ.

2.  This church, along with every other church professing Jesus Christ, will seek to model for our community -- and anyone who walks through these doors, grace and compassion and forgiveness.  We have been given much, and we need to give no less.

3.  This church will, by God's grace, strive to maintain a balance between cherishing the Faith once delivered and living out godly behavior.  That is to say, we will both love God with all that we are, and we will love our neighbor just as much as we love our own skins.

4.  This church's prayer for itself will always and ever be that we do [our] best to present [ourselves] to God as [a people] approved...worker[s] who [have] no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV).  And we will never be ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.... (Rom 1:16 ESV).

You can't be good; but be good anyway.

You have heard the Word of God; and now I ask that you consider it so very well.   Amen.


September 21, 2012, 2:11 PM

Two Sermons

Before I begin my new sermon series on Evangelism (October 7th), I must spend a couple of weeks taking up a very serious topic.  This upcoming week is really a place setter.  You see, on the 30th, I wish to talk about the state of the church -- the PC(USA) to be exact.  I want to talk about our understanding of the Faith.  I want to talk about what I hope and trust you will find to be undeniable and essential core truths that anchor our faith to the One who has called us.  We need to talk about doctrine.  THE Truth.  Yes, I know, very heavy stuff.

You have heard me recite from time to time one of Steve Brown's ecclesiastical aphorisms:  The more Christians know theology, the meaner they get.  In the pulpit this Sunday, I want to arrest any possibility that New Hope would ever go there.  I've been there.  I've lived it.  I've seen it.  And it ain't pretty!  But I'll tell you something that is just as ugly:  Well-meaning Christians who, whether through ignorance of the Scriptures or bull-in-the-china-shop intentionality, shape and dispense a sacred Word that blends in seamlessly with a changing culture.  "We don't believe THAT anymore."  "We know better NOW."  "You can't take the Bible literally, you understand."  "We are ever evolving in our understanding."  "You can't expect that Jesus, a man of his times, would know of modern psychology and science."  "The Bible was a tool for control by the early church, we must re-interpret it for our times."  "We must de-mythologize the text."  On and on, ad nauseam!

So, this Sunday, we need to reaffirm and remind ourselves of who we are and who we will be, no matter what.  I am preaching from Romans 12:9-21.  I preached on this text a couple of years ago.  I am including the text of that message below so that you can see a fuller treatment of the topic.  This Sunday will be a little different --  this time out, I will be using this text as a backdrop to what we need to hear.

If I were to preach the sermon that I intend to preach on the 30th without setting it up this upcoming Sunday, you might walk away thinking your preacher was some sort of unrelenting, hard and cold minister.  I am not.  I am passionate about what I do and what I believe.  I am pained to the core of my soul that I must preach about the state of our denomination.

Please pray for your pastor as the Lord brings it to mind as I pray for you.

(The picture, incidentally, is of a young Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms in 1521.  But, more on that later!)


New Hope Presbyterian Church, September 26, 2010

From the sermon series 7-UP & Closer 2 Christ:  Loving in the Concrete (Sermon #6)  Text:  Romans 12:9-21

Tough words to open this morning:  “Let love be genuine.”

A professor of psychology had no children of his own, but whenever he saw a neighbor scolding a child for some wrongdoing, he would say, “You should love your boy, not punish him.”

One hot summer afternoon the professor was doing some repair work on a concrete driveway leading to his garage.  Tired out after several hours of work, he laid down the trowel, wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and started toward the house.

Just then out of the corner of his eye he saw a mischievous little boy putting his foot into the fresh concrete.  He rushed over, grabbed him, and was about to spank him severely when a neighbor leaned from a window and said, “Watch it, Professor!  Don’t you remember?  You must ‘love’ the child!”  At this, he yelled back furiously, “I do Love him in the abstract, but not in the concrete!”

When you think about it for long, this story exposes one of the persistent shortcomings of living out the Christian life:  We’re good at loving in the “abstract”; but not in the “concrete.”

In a similar vein, I read a fascinating book a few years ago on American history:  This Rebellious House.  [Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House:  American History & the Truth of Christianity, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press) 1996.]

The author’s main argument in the book is that throughout history -- especially American history -- governments, corporations and individuals have feigned Christian morality, principles and motives, all the while doing exactly the opposite of what Christ would have them to believe and do.  Quite provocative reading!

Likewise, in theory, I love everybody!  But the reality is; there are some people that I don’t really like all that much -- much less love!  If you are honest, you know that is your reality as well!  It’s hard to love abrasive people who rub you raw.  It’s hard to accept people who are untrustworthy, devious or just plain mean.  Think about how much it hurts when someone betrays you or slanders you in some way.  The exhortation to love that person seems personally humiliating; offending your personal sense of right and wrong.  After all, just deserts are deserved; and doesn’t the Bible teach that you should “do unto others as they do unto you”?  (No!  cf. Luke 6:31; Matt. 7:12).

1 John sings this stinging refrain over and over:  “…whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” (1 Jn. 2:11).  “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 Jn. 3:15).  “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.  And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 Jn. 4:20-21).

Let’s look more closely at those opening words:  “Let love be genuine.”  The Greek word translated “genuine” literally means “un-hypocritical.”  When it comes to loving your “neighbor,” stop the pretense.  Stop play-acting.  Stop talking out of both sides of your mouth.  The kind of “love” spoken of here is avga,ph..  It describes the kind of love that exists within the Trinity and which God demonstrates towards us:  Selfless, sacrificial and persistent.

Too often, we love because of what we can get.  We love until there is conflict or disappointment in the one loved.  But that is not the kind of love that God wants us to have for each other.

The heading in my Bible for our reading in Romans 12 this morning says, “Marks of the True Christian.”  Some call this section the apostle Paul’s “recipe for love.”  “…Each staccato imperative adds a fresh ingredient” to love:

“Abhor[ing] what is evil [and] hold[ing] fast to what is good….be[ing] fervent in spirit, serv[ing] the Lord….be[ing] constant in prayer….Rejoic[ing] with those who rejoice, weep[ing] with those who weep….associat[ing] with the lowly.”

However, I want you to notice the troubling change in intensity [perhaps the level of difficulty?] beginning at verse 14:  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Now, you have to admit, it’s hard enough loving the people who are the easiest to love – but loving our enemies?

Verse 17, Repay no one evil for evil.”

Verse 18 “…so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Verse 19, don’t seek revenge; that’s God’s job, not yours!

Verse 20, “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

This stuff is straight out of Jesus’ playbook.  In fact, from chapters 12-15, Paul quotes Jesus either directly or indirectly no less than fourteen times.

(1) 12:14 = Luke 6:28;  (2) 12:17 = Matthew 5:39;  (3) 12:18 = Matthew 5:9, Mark 9:50;  (4) 12:20 = Luke 6:27;  (5) 13:7 =Mark 12:14, 17;  (6) 13:8 = John 13:34ff, Matthew 22:37ff;  (7) 13:9 = Matthew 7:12;  (8) 13:11a = Luke 12:56;  (9) 13:11b,c = Mark 13:36, Luke 21:28;  (10) 14:10, 13 = Matthew 7:1;  (11) 14:12 = Matthew 12:36;  (12) 14:13 = Matthew 18:7;  (13) 14:14, 20 = Matthew 15:10, Mark 7:19;  (14) 14:17 = Matthew 6:25; 33.  (John Stott, Romans:  God’s Good News for the World, Downers Grove: IVP, 1994, pp. 318-19)

Far from seeking revenge, genuine love expects you to do right by your enemies; to go the extra mile in returning love for evil.

That curious expression “heap[ing] burning coals on [your enemies] head” has been somewhat of a mystery in the history of interpretation.

The story is told of a woman involved in bitter fighting with her husband.  Seeking professional help she was asked by the counselor, “Have you tried heaping burning coals on his head?” to which she responded, “No, but I tried a skillet of hot grease!”

According to recent study, it appears to come from “an Egyptian penitential ritual [arising from the actions of a thief by the name of Cha-em-wese.]  The story goes that he returned a book of magic stolen out of a grave by carrying a basin of fiery coals on his head.  Carrying the fire signified his consciousness and attitudes of shame, remorse, repentance, and ultimately correction.”

[Likewise] “When the enemy has steeled himself to meet hate with hate and is impervious to threats of revenge, he is vulnerable to a generosity which overlooks and forgives, and capitulates to kindness.” (From Bruce K. Waltke, Proverbs 15-31, V.2, NICOT 2005, pp.331-32)

“Heaping burning coals” (cf. Proverbs 25:22) is a way of bringing your enemy around to repentance.  Bringing another person around to repentance is the most loving thing that one person can do for another!  Perhaps this is why in the very next breath, Paul says:  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

My friends, love must be genuine.  This is our calling in this world.  This is what God wants from you.  The world preaches something much different:  Get even.  Love only those who love you.  Return like for like.  Watch out for number one.  Seek your own happiness at all costs.  Hate your enemies.

I close with this challenge to you:  Let genuine love begin here in this church.  Let’s learn what it means to really love one another, and then, when we do just that, let’s see what God will do in and through us.

You have heard the Word of God.  No consider it well.   Amen.

September 13, 2012, 9:59 AM

The Sequel to the Bronze Serpent

"[King Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah.  And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it...." (2 Kings 18:4 ESV).  There is your sequel to the bronze serpent!  Hundreds of years after the crisis in the wilderness, the people have grown quite fond of the serpent, and are now worshiping the statue itself.  The bronze serpent had become just like the golden calf - a violation of the 2nd Commandment.  It is quite incredible that something that God provided to encourage a deeper level of trust in his provision had been converted into an object of worship in and of itself.

I am reminded here of an off the cuff remark made by one of my professors in seminary.  He said something like this:  "I hope that they never find the original manuscripts of either the Old Testament or the New Testament, becuase if they did, they would become idols."  I admit, I never quite thought of it in that manner.  But the more I thought about it, I realize that he was right.  People would be transfixed by the material documents.  Who knows, perhaps some enterprising individual would build a shrine to the manuscripts and charge admission for a glance at the holy writings?  Perhaps you would then have Christians coming from all over the world to see this great sight?  Before long, you'd have another gloden calf and bronze serpent!  God gave us his Word to point us to Himself.  Perhaps it is in God's wisdom that we do not have the orginal manuscripts of the Bible; and more to the point, we really do not have any idea what Jesus looked like!  Think about that!

September 7, 2012, 8:28 AM

Numbers & Us

We are about to close out this series in the book of Numbers.  As I was preaching last week, something occured to me on the spot.  Each sermon text I've chosen in this book ends on a predominantly negative note.  Uuugh!  I remember the words of the professor in my Old Testament Survey course in college:  "This is the saddest book in all of the Old Testament."  Well, I don't know about that -- perhaps Jeremiah's Lamentations might be a good candidate for that distinction -- but his point was well taken.  But, here's the sobering reality about  that remark:  The people of God in the Wilderness resemble the people of God in the Church today.  [!]  Think about that for a moment.

  I can't help but come away with that thought after reading of their adventuires on the way to the Promised Land.  They are the Israel of God.  The people who are the "apple of his eye."  The nation entrusted with the mission of bringing the Kingdom of God to a needy world.  The beneficiaries of all that hevane has to offer.  And then on the other hand, here are the most discontent, ungrateful, grumbling, fickle, backsliding people on the face of the earth!

Don't we resemble that remark?  Ouch.

And yet, and yet.  God doesn't leave things that way.  He provides for his people over and over.  He forgives them over and over.  He stays with them and fulfills all of his promises.  In spite of all the human failure, he continues to lay the groundwork for his ultimate answer to human need.  The fingerprints of Jesus are all over the book of Numbers:  From the numerous prayerful interventions from Moses and Aaron to the blatantly obvious preview of the cross in the serpent lifted up in the wilderness.

As I read and preach through this book, I want to make sure to come back to the man in the mirror.  How can I, as a believer in Jesus Christ, keep myself from the grumbling state of mind?  How can I learn from my spiritual ancestors?  How can I draw closer to the Lord?  Well, I'm not a fan of laundry lists, but I came across a blog entry a few days ago that I found very helpful and encouraging.  Check it out.  Hope that you will find it so as well.

22 Ways to Humble Ourselves

August 18, 2012, 12:55 PM

Thoughts From Vacation...

I suppose this is not the thing I am supposed to be doing right now.  I am supposed to be on vacation!  However, maybe still, it could be a good time to post some thoughts as I await a return to the pulpit -- so I will.  I appreciate Ed DeBerry preaching in my absence last Sunday.  It is so nice to have Ed at New Hope.  His motto might well be, "Have Bible and Will Preach."  If you haven't had an opportunity to hear Ed's sermon from this past Sunday, please do so -- I just put it up in the sermon section.  I also don't want to miss an opportunity to thank Aubrey Lester for the sermon he preached as well.  Aubrey presented the skit, "A Phone Call from God."  I'm sure that a few toes were stepped on and a number of consciences were pricked in the process.  Good job, Aubrey!  As the old saying goes, good preachers, "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

My other good friend, "Mike from PFF" will be teaching Sunday School and preaching this Sunday.  Those who heard him last time told me that it was a profitable time.  Please do come and find out what Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship (PFF) is doing in the world.  It is exciting to hear stories of the Gospel going to places where it is not.  We are so spoiled here in the United States.  We have every kind of church experience -- high church, low church, contemporary church, traditional church, contemplative church, and any other kind of worship experience you could ever dream of.  We have Bibles of every sort.  But, when you go into some of the countries that PFF serves, these spiritual luxuries don't exist.  Nada, nope, no way, not ever.  So, come to hear about frontier missions this Sunday.

For our visit to Florida, it was, as it usually is, a time to check out one of the theme parks.  All of us -- with the exception of Noelle -- took in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.  I knew things were going to be a bit crowded because it is still summer.  We waited in a long line just to get into the parking garage! (The parking garage.  Yes, that is what I said.)  We got to the first ride, The Forbidden Journey in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  110 minute wait! (Translation: nearly two hours.)  We waited.  Took in the details in queue.  Listened to Dumbledore's speech, something about it being easy to do the wrong thing and hard to do the right thing, but stll, do the right thing anyway.  Saw Harry, Ron and Hermione make it snow indoors.  And we waited.  The ride itself took maybe three minutes.  Maybe.  Boy, that was exciting.  Moving right along, then we took in a couple of more rides before splitting up to cover more ground.  Me and Matthew decided to take in the Hulk roller coaster.  (Rachel still doesn't meet the height requirement, Doh!)  Again, waited nearly an hour.  Matthew was really sweating this one out.  First time on the Hulkster.  The wait was excruciating for the boy.  But then, we get up to the platform and the unthinkable happens.  TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES.  The ride closes down.  Can you believe that?  Right as we were about to get on the stupid thing!  Matthew was magnanimous and not a little relieved.  "That's okay dad.  We can leave.  We don't have to wait anymore."

The rest of the day, the crowds swelled to the levels I remembered on a Christmas Day at the Magic Kingdom a few years ago.  It was even hard to walk in the open areas, forget the queues!  Impossible!  Just get me out of this place!

The pool felt good that night.  Really good!

Okay, here's the sermon connection.  This IS a sermon blog.  As I cooled in the pool that night, I began to wonder why (how) on earth you can get hundreds of thousands of strangers to pile into an expensive, inconvenient, hot and crowded mess -- and get them to spend hundreds to even thousands of dollars on the experience.  And enjoy it!

By contrast, on Sunday mornings, preachers climb into the pulpit and proclaim a free and rich Gospel.  They talk about God's love.  They talk about what God's up to in the world.  They plumb the mysteries of life with a reliable source -- the Word of God.  They serve soul food at the Lord's Table.  They give encouragement for the coming week.  They convict where conviction is needed.  They soothe where it hurts.  And on and on.  And, to throw in a few unbelievable added extras:  There are no long queues.  No parking charges.  No hassles.  No heat.  No rides breaking down at the last minute.

Can you feel what I'm feeling here?  Are you writing along with me on this?  Do you inhabit the same page here brother?  Sister?

Can I get a witness, please?

Oh well, I'm still on vacation.

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