On the Plains of Moab Blog
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September 2, 2011, 10:55 AM

I'm Baaaaack!

My goodness, it is so easy to get out of the habit of blogging!  Kind of like a Sunday morning habit of doing other interesting things.  But I am back on this page on the eve of the wrap of yet another 7-UP sermon series in Hebrews.  If you are keeping count, we have done a series in Ezra (actually ten sermons there), Romans, Genesis, Matthew and Deuteronomy.  That's a pretty good spread and balance of significant Scripture!  In a few weeks, we will drop the catchy, if a little cheesy, overarching title.  No more 7-UP.  However, we will keep the seven sequence, and we will keep the pattern of covering significant ground in both the OT and the NT.  We will still try to capture the sense and core of each book we study.  But, as a new twist to this sermon thing, we will include specialized studies in the puplpit.  For example, in a few weeks we will cover the life of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings.

Parenthetically, I want to also add that this is honoring a suggestion from the pew.  So, the moral of the story is that you too can have some input into what the preacher preaches.

(Note well that I did not say that there was any hope of influencing the length of these homiletical gems!)

Let me just add a few more closing thoughts as we bring the curtain down on Hebrews.  The gist of the "sermon" [the book of Hebrews] is that what we do; what we believe; what we hope in as it relates to our faith and trust in Jesus, our Great High Priest, is ultimately worth anything that the world can throw at us.  There is absolutlely no reason to give up and turn back to whatever we came from.  In the case of the original hearers, it was a return to Judaism to smooth over family splits and embarrassment.  In our case -- fill in the blank.  The options are multiple:  Mocking neighbors, skeptical co-workers, mean fellow students.  On another level, perhaps it is a health crisis; a death in the family; a financial crisis; or just flat out disappointment with God for one reason or another.  Don't go there.  Stay the course.  It will be worth it.  God is faithful and true.  He can't lie about what he has promised to us.

A couple of weeks ago, we had sermon entitled "A Hard Word."  What a tough passage to preach from:  It's impossible to renew a person to repentance once they have tasted of the goodness of God if they fall away.  [My paraphrase!]  It is so tempting to get carried away debating things that aren't there when coming to this passage!  As I told you, this is not about losing your faith.  This is not about undermining the cherished understanding of eternal security.

This was there to remind the hearers (and us) that there is peril in unbelief.  But, this is not our story.  There are better things for us.  We don't have to go there.  It is a prod to move on in our understanding of the Faith.  To move on to greater and even more awe-inspiring things about our Savior and High Priest, Jesus.

As we close this Sunday, we are going to be looking at the finish line.  We are going to see the whole heavenly host and those who have gone on ahead of us to be with the Lord -- standing at the finish line cheering us on!

This is going to be an uplifting message, and I hope that you will be there to be encouraged this Sunday.

Again, sorry for the gap in entries.  I am currently in the process of determining what my penalty will be for such a lapse. indecision   

August 19, 2011, 2:39 PM

Follow Up

Okay, the news.  Noelle's viral load -- the name of the blood test that actually searches the body for the HIV virus --- came back negative this morning.  She is clear.  She does not have HIV.  She had a false positive on her initial screen.  The horror of last weekend is now in the rear view mirror.  We are grateful and relieved.  We are thankful for the many friends who expressed concern and care and prayed for us and our littlest girl.  You really were Jesus to us.

But now, as I reflect back on the week and the sermon topic from this past Sunday, I must say that I am humbled.  I have always read "Come boldly before the throne of grace for grace (favor!) and mercy in your time of need" much like I read Romans 8:28 "All things work together for the good to them who are the called by God according to his purpose." -- Perfunctorily.  Hastily.  Familiarly. Detachedly.  Academically.  In a way, I approached it in the spirit of, "Well, I'll never really need that one."

Well, I did need that one promise.

I can say this in all Reformed seriousness:  I did not deserve the grace and mercy I received.  I was angry and bitter.  And I was angry at God.  And I called him out last Friday.  My three dogs and the Lord were the only ones who heard my private rant. The dogs probably knew better.  God didn't take me out on the spot.  [Take that, ingrate!]  He is allowing me another day to speak of his love and mercy.  (And I will!)

Over this past weekend, I had to simmer in all of the things that I've preached over the past ten years.  Not only are they true, but I've also learned first-hand the truth of "unconditional election" in the famous Calvinistic acrostic from Dort: TULIP.  We do nothing to deserve or merit our salvation.  As God says over and over in the prophets:  I will save you for my name's sake -- not yours.  The Lord knows better!



August 16, 2011, 9:17 AM

When Preaching Gets Personal

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

(Heb. 4:14-16 ESV) 

This passage that I preached on this past Sunday was an introduction to the heart of the "sermon" that we find in Hebrews.  The introduction begins a long teaching on Christ, our great high priest.  The section is closed with very similar wording in Heb. 10:19-23 (ESV):

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

These two passages form a literary bookend known as an inclusio.  This inclusio repeats the words that we are to store in our hearts about God and our great high priest, Christ.  We do indeed have a sympathetic, empathetic high priest.  We can with confidence hold fast our confession of God's goodness in Christ.  We can and should and must come boldly before the throne of grace to find mercy and favor.

Do it!  Don't hesitate.  Don't vacillate.  Don't doubt.  No matter what!

You did not know it at the time -- but the sermon's primary needy heart wasn't in the pews this past Sunday, but the man who was encouraging you towards this disposition with these outrageous propositions.

Yeah, me.

Last Thursday, August 11th at 10:00 AM, I got a phone call that sent me into a state of shock.  The pediatric doctor who had been evaluating Noelle called...directly.  No message from the receptionist or nurse.  The doctor.  His voice was slow, deliberate and painful.  "I'm so sorry Mr. Smith.  Your daughter has tested positive for HIV."  From there on out, it felt like he was the undertaker gathering information for funeral arrangements.

I had been in a light, upbeat mood when I walked into church that morning.  Now, all I wanted to do was get out of the building and isolate myself.  I drove out of the church parking lot in a cloud of fear, anger and bitterness.  I went home and sat in stunned silence -- tears flowing, and the questions starting to come fast and furious out of my mouth towards God.  "Why God?  I have been faithful in proclaiming your goodness, week after week.  I have never lied about you.  I may be a flawed practitioner of the holiness I seek -- but I have never lied in the pulpit.  I proclaim you as a gracious, merciful God.  Why this little girl?  Why this kick in the stomach to a family trying to do the right thing?  Why this slap in the face to my wife who has pursued this out of her love for you?!"

I wondered how I was going to be able to step in the pulpit on Sunday.  My family was in Williamsburg, and here I was, alone.  Alone with my thoughts.  Shannon had spoken with the doctor earlier, so she knew as well.  And she was miserable.  The kids did not know.  They were having a great vacation.  Little Noelle only knew that we were subjecting her to some awful needle sticks at the doctor -- trying desperately to get blood from her little arms.

On Friday, I did not do anything.  I did not want to do anything.  I called a couple of trusted friends out of town -- my former pastor and a good buddy from seminary.  But, I broke down and couldn't even get the words out.  By Saturday, I was starting to get my brain around this thing.  The family came home.  I was beginning to get used to the idea that our lives were going to change.  I was able to call up the seminary friend, and simply say, "Brad, we need a miracle.  Just pray for it."

Our prayer:  We need a false positive!  Either that, or make us more like Jesus through this.  And Lord, wherever this goes -- thank you that we can take care of this little girl.  Thank you that nobody can love her the way we will love her.

On Sunday afternoon, we got yet another call from the doctor.  On Sunday!  Oh no!  (That was our collective groan.)   However, this time, it was better news.  The second, more specific test -- the western blot - returned a negative result.  We are told that the screen that returned the positive was a highly sensitive test -- which made it entirely possible to get a false positive.  Noelle had tested negative on her HIV screen in China!

Yesterday, we took the family to the infectious disease specialist.  The doctor took a look at our records and then, calmly and confidently and reassuringly said, "I think your daughter is going to be fine.  Don't worry.  But I know you will."  "I've never seen a negative western blot lead to a positive later on."  The next step, he said, was to do a final, definitive test, which is an actual search for the virus in her body.  If this test comes back negative -- Noelle will be declared healthy in regard to HIV.  Period.  End of subject.

Of course, Noelle did not appreciate being stuck again!  But, we were so relieved.

We covet your prayers this week as we await the final results, which will be in on Friday.  The doctor seems pretty sure.  But we know that we are in the hands of the one who has beckoned us to draw near to him -- to come boldly before the throne of grace in our time of need. 



August 10, 2011, 3:49 PM

Book Plug

I mentioned this book in my Sunday school class on Sunday, and heartily commend it to you: 

God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? by David T. Lamb.

This is the book that I have always wanted to write -- and I am thankful that the author of the book has undertaken the task.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard good and thoughtful Christians commit many of the thought burps addressed in this book.  (A thought burp is an unrefined and/or undigested thought!)

Says "Jeff" on Amazon Reviews:

The God of the Old Testament has consistently received a bad reputation since Marcion formulated the idea of two distinct deities between the testaments during the 2nd century. This idea has been articulated primarily due to the way God has `acted' in the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures, particularly in relation to His ordering the killing of thousands of people during many of the recorded battles. These episodes have resulted in very serious accusations that God is angry, sexist, racist, violent, legalistic, rigid and distant.

With these things in mind, David Lamb set out to address these specific concerns in his book God Behaving Badly. The book represents his attempt to "reconcile the supposedly contradictory portrayals of God in the two testaments," by addressing those passages that have often been used to further the two-deity argument.

Lamb's basic contention throughout is that many have concluded that God is angry, sexist and racist, etc, primarily due to a of misreading scripture. When the problematic texts are read within there appropriate contexts, all of the problems don't immediately disappear, but they do begin to take shape and take on a meaning that has often been missed

One other thing -- this is a book that is written on a popular level.  Nothing egg-head here.  Very down to earth.  Very basic.

August 5, 2011, 9:17 PM

What's the Big Deal About Sunday?

Indeed.  As we approach this Sunday's text in Hebrews (3:7-4:13), this will be the question I will be trying to address.

As always, there are so many things we could do in this big play room of a sermon bite.  I know it sounds wierd, but as I was on my way home from a movie today -- I kept thinking, "Why didn't they do it this way?"  "Why didn't they add more warmth to this character?"  "Why didn't they expand on that important (to me) theme?"

And then, it hit me.  Movies are just like sermons.  The producers/directors/screen writers and preachers must take a lot of stuff and condense it into a seeable/hearable story.  This means leaving alot of stuff on the cutting room floor.  (Which is why I started this blog in the first place!)

And so, here in Sunday's sermon, I must focus on the "sabbath rest" theme that flows through the chapter.  Know that what we have begun in the first two sermons still holds.  The preacher in Hebrews is still exhorting his hearers/readers to keep with the program, so to speak.  Jesus is the one and only.  He is worth it.  No matter what.

Now, the preacher begins to give them another perspective of why it's all worth it -- and it has to do with what the future will look like.  What God's people can look forward to in his good time.  Yes, shorthand:  What heaven will be like.

Now, I hope you can anticipate what I will say about the Lord's Day -- Sunday!

That's the trajectory, folks.  See you Sunday!

August 2, 2011, 11:22 AM

Paying More Attention to Jesus

As I reflect on Sunday's message from Hebrews, I am aware that in preaching, there is always a need for qualifications.  For instance, when I said on Sunday that one of the biggest problems with the Faith is not that we don't think the right things about Jesus, but that we don't think enough of him.  Now, quite obviously, it should go without saying that there are huge problems with what we think about Jesus in the Church!  (Heresy, I'm afraid, is still alive and well in the Church, even if it seems unthinkingly knee-jerk at best or unduly harsh on the downside to describe creative thinking about Jesus.)  But not to digress, I was trying on Sunday to focus on the practical reality that we do indeed need to think more about the Jesus that we do know.  You are -- members of New Hope -- a well-churched bunch.  You have heard the story countless times.  You have heard Sunday school lessons from time immemorial.  But, reality check here:  How much does that story impact your day to day life?

Life does have a way of getting in the way.  Sometimes it is hard to "live it" when the culture surrounding us is fairly dismissive about much of it.  As I promised, here is that CNN FaithBlog poll I referenced in the sermon.  Read it here.  Amazing to me that a survey questioner could actually get away with such an irreverent and absurd question.  My opinion, of course.  However, it does take the spiritual temperature of our culture.  And the verdict is:  A lot of drifting.  Come on folks, let's think more about our Savior!

I came across another web item -- a video that illustrates the point so well in a different kind of way.  In China, they don't have the liberties that we have here in the States to worship and think on the Savior.  In China, some Christians must really take big risks to think more deeply about Jesus.  What a testimony that some of these brothers and sisters in the Lord have to share!   Check out this video:  Go Here.

Keep thinking, don't drift!

July 26, 2011, 10:44 AM

A Little Later Than Usual

Okay, so I am falling down on the job.  By now, Sunday's sermon is on the shelf collecting dust -- and yet, I still have some stuff that is overflowing the cup.  So, let me come back to that old message.  Christ:  The One & Only.  The first sermon of the new 7-UP series.  What I wanted to say was:  Whatever it is that might be claiming your heart's affections apart from Christ -- don't do it!  Don't go there!  There is no good reason to leave or lapse.  Why?  Because "in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son[!], whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world[!] He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature[!], and he upholds the universe by the word of his power[!] After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high...[!]"  What else do you need to know?  It certainly can't get any better than that!

But there was another line of reasoning that I used on Sunday, that I fear was far too truncated.  I used an analogy of China's faith-like devotion to communism and the founder of China's current social-political order, Mao Zedong.  At the risk of coming off as a weiguoren (non-Chinese anywhere) -- a term of derision for a westerner who tries to comment on things Chinese he doesn't really understand -- I will try to unpack what I had in mind on Sunday.

You see, before going to China, I did not know that Mao was on public display, Lenin-like.  I found out too, that they have done the same thing with Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.  Very strange!  Here in the United States, and in the west in general -- we don't do this kind of thing with our leaders.  Can you imagine going to Mount Vernon and seeing Washington on ice?  Or Hyde Park and viewing Roosevelt?  No way.  Not in a million years.  We don't do stuff like that.

Now, why?  Why is it different in those countries where communism is predominant?  As I drank in the culture around me when I was in China, it occured to me that there is an inner, spiritual longing in humanity to place their faith in something!  That vacuum must be addressed in some way.  Now, if you take away, or denigrate the existence of God -- that faith must latch onto something else.  The frozen, accessible bodies of past leaders are a good, tangible way to keep the eyes of the faithful fixed on the program.  He lives!  ...Well, sort of.

We do not keep our past leaders on ice.  Our faith need not be directed towards fallible human leaders.  Our leaders, no matter how great -- and we've had many such leaders -- never intended that they be thought of otherwise.  (George Washington, for one, never wanted to be "worshiped" in any shape, form or fashion.)  Perhaps this is a good reason to keep "In God We Trust" stamped boldly on our currency?

Anyway, I thought the message of Hebrews was a great contrast to the "worship" of a human leader or even a human system of government.  The writer to the Hebrews goes to great lengths to keep everyone on board with the program, so to speak.  You serve a living Savior.  He's alive, not dead.  I love the imagery in Hebrews 12 that seeks to close the deal.  The picture is of the saints in heaven cheering us on to the finish line.  "Come on, you can do it!"  "Just a little bit more!"

This next sermon will begin to look at the reasoning behind our encouragement and hope in this One & Only Savior.

More to come!

July 19, 2011, 5:09 AM

Segue Here

Last Sunday we looked ever so briefly at the "remembrance" portion of the Supper.  Why is it that Communion should arrest us in our steps and elicit even greater praise to God for the things he has done?  We must be ever vigilant and persistent in reminding ourselves of these things so that we will grow in ever-increasing amounts of grace and leave behind the ways of the forgetful hearer.

This is why God commanded his people out of Egypt to repeat the Passover feast on a regular basis, teaching the younger generation and reminding the older generation of the really important things in life.  Similarly, this is why we have a Church calendar from Advent all the way through Lent/Easter and Christ the King Sunday.  Keep these things in the forefront of the mind.

As a segue to the next 7-Up sermon series beginning this upcoming Sunday in the book of Hebrews -- I hope you will notice that the primary purpose of the writer of this book -- whoever that was -- is to extol the greatness, the matchlessness, the superiority of, and the wonder of God in Jesus Christ.  Remember this.  Cherish this.  Live in light of this.  The title of the new series is going to be "Christ:  The One & Only."  (For reasons -- after that burst of short superlatives -- that I trust are obvious.)

The reputation of Hebrews has been, in my experience, way too theological.  Way too complex to be practical.  But, in reality, it is an intensely practical book because it stirs up and reinforces the hope we have in Christ.  This is what I will be endeavoring to show as we get into this book of the New Testament.

July 16, 2011, 6:14 PM

"This Do in Rembrance of Me"

The title of this entry is the memorable way the old King James Bible records the words of institution for the Lord's Supper.  Remembering the Lord Jesus Christ in his life and his death and his resurrection.  Tomorrow's sermon will try to unpack what it means to take communion in remembrance of those Christological realities -- his life, his death on the cross and his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father.

As a matter of course, when I preach on communion, I like to unpack that wonderful, middle of the road position -- between Rome on one side, and the followers of Zwingli on the other -- namely, the "real presence" of Christ in the faithful partaking of the communion elements.  When we take communion, we aren't just merely remembering Jesus, we are actually particpating in his body and his blood (Zwingli-ism), and the elements do not magically become (transubstantiate) the literal body of Jesus.  No, by faith, we are brought into the presence of Christ.  We commune with him.  We are fed spiritually -- empowered, much as the Israelites in the wilderness were strenthened by the water from the rock and the manna from heaven.  (They got sick and complacent from that routine much as we get a little bored with the routine of monthly communion... But that's another sermon for another day!)

I say all that to says this:  Just because I speak solely of remembrance tomorrow, it doesn't mean that I've reneged on "real presence."  As with so many things in the Faith, there is a richness and complexity with our understanding of what it means to be the people of God.  When it comes to the Lord's Supper, we must recognize and cherish several realities represented there to us:  Past (what Christ has done for us -- dying for our sins), present (what Christ is working in us -- holiness) and future (what Christ will do -- fellowship in the "marriage supper of the Lamb).

Tomorrow, we will deal with the first perspective.

PS  The picture here is a totally gratuitous and non-germane to the topic!  However, it is the very first time Noelle and I laid eyes on each other.  Note well the look of suspicion in her eyes.  I am happy to report that she has moved on to full trust and faith in her earthly father.

June 27, 2011, 8:23 AM

After Thoughts

One of the most excruciating tasks for a minister is to lay down the law, so to speak.  To speak a word that is not popular.  To point out a boundary that one should not transgress without serious ramifications.  To say "no" when the prevailing wisdom of culture says "yes."  I suppose that there are ministers out there who take extreme delight in playing the pious gas bag down from Sinai.  Not me.

I would much rather spend my pulpit and lectern time reminding and exhorting you of God's love and his glorious future plans of restoration.  Yesterday, in both the Ezekiel study and the pulpit on Paul, was one of those times where we have to hear a stabilizing word to keep us from going off the spiritual tracks.


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