On the Plains of Moab Blog
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November 1, 2011, 6:46 PM

When Sermon Titles Mislead



This past Sunday, the title to the sermon was "A Woman Named Jezebel."  There was only one problem:  The sermon was not about Jezebel!  For sure, her act of extreme callousness towards Naboth and his sons was front and center.  The plot must rank within The Top Ten of the Greatest Wicked Acts in the Bible.  However, the story was not about her.  The story was not about her husband, King Ahab.  Even Elijah played a smaller role in this episode.

The spotlight, as I hope was clear from the message, was on God's justice and God's grace.  God's justice -- announced through Elijah -- because this heinous act did not go un-noticed by God.  He saw what happened.  He was grieved by what happened.  His justice was sure and certain.  This wicked act will have consequences.  Naboth's blood will not fade away.

This story of Naboth is, as I suggested, played out once again in the New Testament on a larger, much grander scale.  In Jesus Christ, we see a man envied, unjustly accused, unjustly tried, unjustly murdered.  The justice in this death is the power of the resurrection to cacel out and cover over the sins of the world.  By faith, even the sin of the most callous of bystanders on that dark day are washed away.  Moreover, grace abounds in this seemingly senseless deed:  Sinners deserving something else, get farmore than they could have ever bargained for!

The connection with Naboth must certainly be that God enters into our suffering.  He is not beyond it.  He doesn't merely sit far from the action and declare justice -- he comes down and engages with it.  This is the thought that keeps me going.  This is what keeps a fire going in the pulpit.  This is why I can never beleive that people could find this stuff boring or second rate. 




October 28, 2011, 7:06 PM

Finding Christ in the Old Testament



One of the greatest turns in my understanding of the Bible came when I could finally appreciate the sermons of Puritan writers.  When you read those sermons -- and they were lonnnng sermons (none of the 15-25 minute sermonette stuff!) -- you realize how immersed they were in the entire story from Genesis through Revelation.  The sermon text might be Matthew 28:19-20, but you can best be believing that the preacher was going to go throughout the entirety of Scripture showing that God planned this Great Commission way back in the Law and the Prophets, and how the Psalmist rejoiced in the day as well.

To put it mildly, this used to drive me nuts!  If you are going to preach on a text -- then, stay on that text, and unpack it for me!   Give me three points and a song, please.

Silly me.  A preacher should, can and ought to use the entirety of Scripture every opportunity in the pulpit because that is the way that God intended His Story to be presented.  It is one cohesive whole -- many genres, many authors, many historical contexts -- but One Story.  How beautiful to realize that God has given us such a multi-faceted revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.

This Sunday, we will be hearing the story of Naboth and his wonderful vineyard that Ahab wanted so very badly.  It would be easy to preach this text in terms of ethics.  Doing the right thing.  Keeping away from the things that ultimately deface us like a spirit of coveting and greed and lustfulness, etc. etc. etc.  Easy stuff that will definitely preach.

However, I am not taking that road on Sunday.  Sure, I don't deny that God would approve of such counsel!  But I also don't think that's primarily why God's given us the story of Naboth.  You will see how this text connects to Jesus.  You will see how this text connects to God's final justice when He sets the world right in the end.  Exciting stuff!

In the meantime, I am linking to a creative blog entry that I came across this morning which gives you an idea of how we should approach the Old Testament.  Quite clever.  Click hear for the Strawberry-RhubarbTheology Blog.

Let me know what you think.




October 23, 2011, 5:50 PM

The Challenge of Interpretation


Today, I gave you a modified rendering of Elijah's run down to Mount Sinai.  The most popular understanding of Elijah's run from Jezebel has him scared and mad.  He's disobedient and flees like a coward.  God has to upbraid him and kick his hiny back north to finish the job.  "Get back up there, Elijah -- don't you know who I AM?

However, there is another interpretation that is gaining traction these days, and that understadning is not a negative one.  It hinges on another translation of the Hebrew text.  Instead of "Elijah was afraid and ran" it goes like this, "Elijah saw what was up and departed south."  Big difference there.  With this understanding, Elijah's leaving was a form of judgment on the nation.  He goes back down to Mount Sinai, goes into God's courtroom, and argues like a prosecuting attourney, and then God pronounces judgment.  The prophet is heart-broken for Israel -- but he is also filled with righteous indignation.  Unlike Moses on the mountain years before, Elijah does not ask for mercy for the people.  However, it is kind of cool that God is merciful without being asked to be merciful!  Sure, Ahab and his kin are going to be brought down in a way reminiscent of the former leader of Libya (real messy), and the people will have to endure hardship and oppression from a hostile neighboring king -- but God will preserve them through it all.  Afterall, God had to this point 7000 knees that hadn't bowed to Baal!

Now, taking that into account, I had a decision to make.  Which interpretation to give you?  I chose to go with the well-worn path...but, I saw in it a touch of mercy and humanity.  I couldn't escape the mood of the prophet.  I couldn't help but see the passion and gentleness in the response of God.  Perhaps one day I will move towards this more covenantal understanding of the passage.  But for now, I see the PLMs in the prophet.  Make no mistake about it, it is there!

If anything, please understand that there are always decisions of interpretation going on in prep for a sermon.  Sometimes it is easier; other times it is painfully hard.  I guess God wouldn't have it any other way.  Perhaps that is why there is a need for so many preachers?




October 19, 2011, 9:16 AM

The Lighter Side of Scripture



Last Sunday, it was kind of fun to bring out the humor that's embedded in Scripture.  Many readers of the Bible don't expect the kind of biting humor that comes through every once in a while in the narrative.  But that's exactly what we found with Elijah's sarcastic response to the prophets of Baal and their lack of success in calling down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice.  "Hey, call a little louder, maybe Baal is deaf or heard of hearing?  Maybe he's asleep?  Perhaps he's indisposed at the moment?"  Oh, that's rich!

Well, I was looking for a laugh last night, and I happened upon The Wittenburg Door -- a slightly irreverent publication (at times), but often keen on exposing Christian blindsides -- and found this mock piece on what Noah's blog might look like, if there had been such networking tools back in the day.  It was much longer, and I include only a snippet here.  (Click on the image if you can't it.  That will give you a bigger image to read from!)

Makes you wonder what was going on in the minds of Noah and his family during that long, uncertain voyage!  No smart phones, no PCs, no texting, Facebooking, Tweeting, and no TV... Oh my!  What did they do?

 

 




October 12, 2011, 10:47 AM

What's the Big Deal about Elijah?



As we get into this sermon series on the life of this prophet, I am finding that the adventures of this prophet make good pulpit fodder.  His life reads like a major action adventure movie.  I am somewhat surprised that a major Hollywood movie has never, to my knowledge, been made.  (Note:  Anything before 1970 doesn't count -- and made for TV movies don't count either.  They are usually low-to-no-budget and lousy and cheesy!)

The story of the widow of Zarephath and her son is riveting.  The encounter on Mt. Carmel that we will consider this Sunday -- is pretty incredible.  The prophet's escape from the snares of Jezebel rivals any chase flick Hollywood has put out there.  The sad and pathetic story of Naboth's vineyard is the stuff of intrigue and moral expose. And, last but certainly not least, the way he leaves the scene.  Not in a hearse -- but in a chariot of glory!

However, as great as the narrative is, the preacher must not miss the main thing:  How does all this point to Christ?  How does Elijah's life function as a vehicle for the Gospel?  Hey, it would be so easy to talk about the lessons that Elijah teaches us about courage under fire; his faithfulness and obedience to God; his overcoming fear and doubt, and so on, and on.  Those are certainly worthy things to talk about for the encouragement of God's people.

But, I don't believe personal ethics and character development are the primary reasons for the inclusion of Elijah's adventures recorded in 1 Kings.

I have been trying to do the theological work so far.  Last Sunday, I tried to underscore the relentlessness of God's love exhibited in and through Elijah.  The people of the northern kingdom of Israel, through their king, Ahab, decided to reject God.  Baal was good enough for them!  God responded by announcing a drought through Elijah.  You think Baal is the storm god?  Let's see about that!

Elijah is then sent across the country to the other side of the Jordan.  To a barren wilderness where God provides for his every need.  As I said Sunday, life breaks out wherever he goes.  (Thanks to Peter Leithart's rich insight in the Brazos Theological Commentary series for that nugget!)  God then sends Elijah across to the other side of the country again, to the land of the "enemy."  Jezebel's home turf.  And Elijah blesses that land through the widow of Zarephath.  He feeds them.  He even defies death by raising her son from the dead.  Life breaks out, big time!

I did not have time to include this little important bit in the sermon, but, in Luke 4:25-26, Jesus said, "I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon." (NIV).  This remark follows his statement that a prophet is without honor in his hometown.  When God's people reject him, he goes elsewhere and blesses somebody else!

Here's the upshot -- Elijah is the voice, the lonely voice, the voice in the wilderness (quite literally) calling out.  Calling for God's people to turn their hearts back home.  Beseeching, pleading, going to the mat for the message.  This is why John the Baptist is the spiritual heir of Elijah.  The Elijah to come.  Jesus himself says as much in Matthew 11:14, 17:12 and Mark 9:12-13.

This pointing.  This demonstration of God's relentless love is the point of Elijah's life.

By all means, enjoy the excitement of the story.  It is an adventure.  But, keep the main thing the main thing.

 




September 26, 2011, 11:29 AM

Arggggh!



It was bound to happen at some time in my life.  And...it happened.  Got burned by technology.  I was, on Friday afternoon, just finishing my sermon at my home computer.  It felt good.  Done early in the day.  Now I had time to make a visit and then head to Christiansburg to a meeting, and then home early to get to bed so that I could get some rest before heading to Busch Gardens with my church family.

All was well and good.  And then.  Well, let's just chalk it up to the process of sanctification, if we really must be spiritual about the whole thing.

I was going to move the sermon file to my church study computer through LogMeIn.com, which enables me to transfer files easily.  I'd done it a few times before, successfully.  But today, somthing went terribly wrong.  The file didn't transfer.  It flashed me a message I hadn't seen before.  "Do you want to overwrite the file?"  Well, I had another version, earlier version, on my study computer.  So I clicked "yes."

Bad move.

When I'd finished, both files had been overwritten.  Now I had nothing.  All that work.

Poof!

Gone.

I was dazed.  This isn't happening.  Okay, it happened.

I was in no mood or frame of mind to start over.  I procrastinated.  I'll wait until I get home tonight.  That night, I wanted nothing more than to go to bed.

Tomorrow, on the bus, I'll write it out longhand, then, get up early Sunday morning and type out the sermon once again from the long hand.  Well, I couldn't write it out long hand on the bus.  I do not think I will ever be able to write out things long hand anymore.  Word processing just ruins that discipline.

I'll get up early in the morning, off 3 hours sleep, and reconstruct the sermon.

No.  On the ride home.  I remembered a sermon I preached a long time ago on prayer.  It was a sermon that I'd written when I was candidating for my first call.  It had been distributed to a number of churches -- but I had never preached it at New Hope.

All of the sudden, I had peace that I hadn't had all day.  Suddenly, preaching on prayer just felt like the right thing to do.

I hope Sunday's message was a confirmation of that peace that I felt late Saturday night.

Oh, and by the way, in a sarcastic tribute to our technological age, please do enjoy this video that pokes fun at us techies.  Click here.




September 22, 2011, 9:18 AM

New Sermon Series!



Here it is!  A new sermon series on the life of the prophet Elijah.  I have already mentioned this -- but I think it merits saying again:  This sermon series was a suggestion from the pew.  And, being the reasonable man that I am, I went along with the idea.  The more I thought about it, the more I was excited about doing a series like this!  As I have been preparing for this topic -- I have found it very enriching for my own purposes.  I hope and trust that you will find it likewise!

The accounts of Elijah and his protege, Elisha, form the core and center of the books of 1 & 2 Kings.  These books constitute a Divine response to the exiles in Babylon.  Do you want to know why you are cooling your heels in a strange land?  Well, let me tell you!  Better still.  better still.  Do you want to know how to get out of your predicament?  Well, let me tell about that too!

Elijah was sent to Israel to be a sort of godly foil to the hopelessly lost King Ahab.  Ahab was the icing on the cake for God's judgment on a rebellious nation.  (Ahab was the seventh king in the northern kingdom -- do the theology there!)  Elijah's ministry makes the reality of this judgment so perfectly clear.

In this sermon series, we will see the love of God in the midst of judgment.  We will see how God is relentless in his pursuit of us.  We will see how God's love extends to the entire world.  We will see how the ministry of this prophet points to the coming of God's ultimate expression of love, in Jesus Christ.

This should be good!

Check out the schedule below.  You will see what will be covered, as well as a dandy little chart to map the prophet's life.  This was initially my own sketch of the Elijah narrative.  I do this kind of thing to give me the lay of the land, so to speak.  I decided to share this with you!  Word of explanation:  The sermon title is directly above the text that will be considered that morning, eg. the first sermon, My God is Yahweh! will be from 1 Kings 17:1, and so on.  I will not be preaching specifically on the call of Elisha -- though, he will figure prominently in the final sermon, Super-Size Me!  (Hint: This sermon won't have anything to do with fast food.) 

 

THE DAYS OF ELIJAH

Dates:  October 2nd – November 13th

Sermon Scope:  1 Kings 17:1 – 2 Kings 2:1-14

  SERMON #1

  My God is Yahweh!

  1 Ki. 17:1

  •   Arrives Suddenly as a Foil to Ahab.

 

  SERMON #2

 

  Relentless!

  1 Ki. 17:1-24

  3 Year Drought Begins as Judgment on Baal Worship.

  Miracles for Widow of Zarephath:

  1) Bottomless Flour & Oil.

  2) Resurrection of Her Son.

 

  SERMON #3

 

  The Troubler of Israel

  1 Ki. 18:1-46

  • Elijah meets faithful Obadiah;
  • Prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel;
  • Drought Ends;
  • Runs to Jezreel.

 

  SERMON #4

 

  The PLMs

  1 Ki. 19:1-18

  • Flees from Jezebel;
  • PLMs;
  • Commissioning on Horeb

  1 Ki. 19:19-21

  •   Call of Elisha

SKIP CH. 20

 

  SERMON #5

 

  Her Name Was Jezebel

  1 Ki. 21:1-29

  • Naboth’s Vineyard;
  • Judgment on Ahab & Jezebel;
  • Ahab’s Repentance

SKIP CH. 22

 

  SERMON #6

 

  Fire From Heaven

  2 Ki. 1:1-18

  •   Confrontation with Ahaziah.

 

  SERMON #7

 

  Super-Size Me!

  2 Ki. 2:1-14

  •   Taken Suddenly Up in a Whirlwind.

 




September 12, 2011, 1:08 PM

The Temptations of Baptism Preaching



What a day it was yesterday!  Thanks to all of you who helped us fill our sanctuary up.  I know you can do it now!

Having my family there was a delight.

However, it was also a temptation.  I must take a few moments to explain my thinking process when presented with an opportunity to preach with family in the house.

This was my third crack at preaching a baptism sermon for one of my kids.  The first time, back in 2002, the family traveled to Orlando where I was interning at Woodbury Presbyterian Church.  I knew that most of my family was "baptistic" in their understanding of baptism, i.e. believer's baptism only.  "Jesus himself said" -- many in this camp often exclaim -- "the one who believes and is baptized will be saved.  Babies don't have the sophistication and depth to intellectually grasp and excercise saving faith.  End of subject.  Slam dunk!"

Not so fast, my friend!

I spoke on that glorious baptism day for Matthew of the promise of the Gospel being for "you and your children after you...."  I spoke of the wonder of the Shorter Catechism likening infant baptism as our "engagement" to the Lord.  We await the day when the child will make the faith their own in "marriage".  When they finally claim all of the promises they inherited by being born into a godly home.  And so on.

(I get chill bumps just by the mere thought of the moment!)

I preached hard and earnest.  Nobody in my family was convinced.

The next shot I had was with Rachel in Appomattox, 2004.  This time, I preached from Acts, and highlighted all of the household baptisms.  Children, I argued, were baptized on the basis of their parents profession.  I spoke of the beauty in the redemptive historical shift from circumcision to water baptism, and so on.  No more blood because of Christ.  Only washing away of sins.

I preached hard and earnest.  Nobody in my family was convinced.

They're all still Baptist.

And so, here we are in 2011.  I realize that no matter how hard I try, I'll never win over my hardened family on that matterwink.  Yesterday, my only goal was to go in and paint a beautiful picture of how God has delivered us all from our own "orphange" of sin.  The awe of adoption.  The way that baptizing our children rings so clearly with this metaphor.  In a sense, I just assumed the spot-on-ed-ness of the practice of the sacrament.  If you're listening as a believer's-baptism-only-person, then the least I hope you come away with is:  Maybe there's something there afterall. 




September 8, 2011, 9:48 AM

It Will Make A Difference For This One.



Sunday will be an extra special day for my family.  We get to baptize our newest little girl, Noelle.  She will become a child of the Covenant --  An heir to the promises of God.  For me, it is doubly extra special because not only do I get to administer the water, but my family will actively participate in  service.  My sister and brother-in-law will be reading the Scripture lessons and my father-in-law will be propounding the constituional questions to Shannon and I, as well as to the congregation.  Woody, who is now the pastor of Amelia Baptist Church, will then lead the prayers of the people.  Of course, we will have many members of both families here to worship with us right through the reception afterwards.  I hope and pray that we will fill up the pews for this special day in the life of your pastor!

Below is a story that has been pasted all over the internet.  Nothing new here.  But this story has a special place in our family -- as you will find out on Sunday.  This story also jibes well with what we will be doing with our daughter on Sunday.

Enjoy!

 

The Starfish Story

Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907 - 1977)

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one."


This story has appeared all over the web in various forms, usually with no credit given to Mr. Eiseley. Sometimes it is a little girl throwing the starfish into the ocean, sometimes a young man, once even an elderly Indian. In any form it is a beautiful story and one that makes you think.

Loren Eiseley was a anthropologist who wrote extensively. He was the 'wise man' in the story, and he was walking along a beach after a storm and encountered the fellow throwing the starfish back.




September 5, 2011, 10:37 AM

Faithfulness, Not Perfection



There always things in sermons that a preacher offers up with fear and trembling.  yesterday, I had one of those moments.  It was with this statement:

"The life that God desires for us doesn’t mean that we are [or become] perfect people.  It means that we become faithful people in ever-increasing measure."

That was a big one!  The reason it kind of spooks me is that you have to realize that you can't say everything when you say something.  Now, if I was a well-known, famous pastor -- which I am not -- this remark might well have created a major theological storm with relentless, harsh critiques; with many wondering whether or not I had strayed from the orthodox fold.  (Christian bloggers and writers, in general, tend to be very nice and gracious in person; but it seems their evil twins do all of their writing.)

"What do you mean that God doesn't want us to be perfect?"  "Isn't that the point of sanctification?"  "Isn't the goal of a Christian life to pursue holiness?"  "Isn't that what God is going to do in our lives?"  Well, the answers, in order, are:  "Of course He does."  "Yes!"  "You betcha!" And "Absolutely, He will!"

But, the point the "preacher" in Hebrews is trying  (I think)  to make is:  Don't get discouraged.  Keep going to the finish line.  If we stop to take inventory of all our failures and backslidings -- we will never get there.

The reality of life is that we are redeemed sinners who are along the way.  That process of sanctification that God has begun in your life will have many ups and downs.  Your biggest responsibility is faithfulness.  That's where your sweat is required.  That's where we all must wrestle with the blows we get from everyday life.  And that is where so many of us fail.

Holiness happens in God's time; faithfulness happens in our time.

As I said yesterday -- keep the faith!

 

ONE OTHER THING WHILE I'M AT IT...

I feel compelled to address another extremely important matter in the sermon overflow this morning.  It is the line that drew the chirping of crickets:  The man Gideon having a mind like a bed.  Before he can use it, somebody has to make it up for him.

Gideon, you will recall, was the one who put out the fleece many times before he finally trusted God.

Anyway -- I persist... Come on, man, that was funny!


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