On the Plains of Moab Blog
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August 13, 2013, 8:01 AM

Life After Death

After I finished my sermon preparation early Friday, I came across a blog entry from Richard Ostling, a long-time religion reporter.  He apparently has an ask me anything about religion column that he keeps.  This was the second entry I've read, and I must say, he does an excellent job.  Oftentimes, I am skeptical of a "mainline" reporter writing about religion.  But I must say, this is a good piece, and tracks well with the sermon on Sunday.  If you want a little more, follow the link:  What Happens After Death?

August 5, 2013, 8:57 AM

Sermon Text: The Wonder of Worship: Why Bother?

Sunday, August 4, 2013.  Revelation 7:9-12

Cameron Smith

Worship.  Why bother?  This is a live question for the times we live in these days.  Recently, blogger Rachel Held Evans ignited a firestorm of debate over social networks when she wrote a blog entry entitled, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church”.  [For a thoughtful response to Evans, see here.]  She suggested that the way we older folks do church and worship is passé and unauthentic to the Millennial generation (people born after 1980).  Blogger and author Jeremy Myers, himself a Millennial, went even further in his book, "Put Service Back into the Church Service: Making Your Church Service Look More Like Jesus."  Listen to a quote from his little tome that I forced myself to read this past week.  Jeremy advocates killing the church worship service, period.  Here’s his rationale.  (If you want to read a fuller quote, go to the sermon blog on our web page.)

"People stop attending church, not because they are rebelling against God, but because as a faithful member of the church, they are following God.  People want to love others like Jesus, and for whatever reason, sitting in a particular building at a certain time of the week hinders their ability to love and serve others in the way they feel Jesus is calling them....This is why giving people permission to leave church is so important (many will eventually leave anyway).  Since many people are thinking of leaving, why not shock the socks off them and tell them to not come!  Rather than make them sneak out the door, rather than making them feel guilty for not attending church, rather than forcing them to come up with lame excuses as to why they 'missed church,' why not show them the door by giving them permission to follow Jesus wherever He leads, even if it is away from the Sunday morning church service?" (pp.27-28).

Jeremy reasons that Sunday mornings are so hectic.  Getting out of bed; getting the kids ready for church.  Fighting with our spouses.  Missing out on a chance to spend some quality time with our families.  Missing opportunities that we could be out there showing the love of Jesus to strangers.  He compares to pastors to pharaoh and says, “Let my people go” that they might serve me outside the confines of the brick and mortar buildings we call church.  He even compares us pastors to drug pushers.  We get people addicted to church services and so we miss out on really serving Jesus.

In fairness to Jeremy, he comes out of a tradition where they purposely fill up the week with church activities and church attendance does seem to be about appearances.  But still, that’s no excuse for publishing such shoddy and myopic work on worship.

No surprises here.  I think that worshiping together on a weekly basis is worth the bother.  I do not think what we do on Sunday morning is passé.  I do not think it is unnecessary.  I will even go further and say this:  What you are doing here on Sunday mornings at 11:00 is the most important thing you will ever do in your life.  Just like your relationship with Jesus Christ, worship is the pinnacle of all earthly experience.  Nothing even comes close.

Let me give you three reasons why worship is worth the effort we pour into it.

I. We Worship For Preparation.

God is preparing us for eternal life.  Mind you, not sitting around on clouds and strumming boring harps.  Eternal life in the new heavens and new earth.  Think of back to the Garden of Eden.  A renewed and perfect earth.  Think of being in the presence of God without the baggage of personal sin and evil in the world.

The Bible opens up in Genesis 1:1with an invitation to worship.  The mood for preparation is set from the very outset in Genesis.  The first five books of the Bible (Gen-Deut.) were addressed to Israel as they were on the plains of Moab.  They were about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.  God gave them the account of creation so they would remember Him as they came into the Land.  He described the creation week with the formula “and there was evening and there was morning” (1:5 ESV).  But when you get to the seventh day, there is no “and there was evening and there was morning.”  The seventh day goes on and on.  And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (2:2-3 ESV).

The seventh day, which became the Sabbath, was hallowed in the Fourth Commandment.  Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. (Deut. 5:12-14 ESV).

God makes this request because he is preparing his people for eternity.  Six days represents the days of our life.  Because of the Fall, we work by the sweat of our brow.  There is pain and often sorrow in the raising of children.  The world can be a cold, hard place.  But at the end of the road, we are ushered into God’s presence.  Heaven.  The seventh day.  The day that never ends.

God gave his people a pattern to honor and hallow the seventh day.  To worship and remember whose they are and to whom they belong.

In the New Testament, with the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday morning, the early church recognized that God had moved the world one step closer to fulfillment – that’s why they call Sunday the eighth day.  In Jesus, the Sabbath shifts from the seventh day to the first day.  The day of New Creation.  The Christian Sabbath.  We see examples in the Book of Acts and Revelation where God’s people are gathering together for worship on the Lord’s Day.

When you come here on Sunday, you are preparing for eternity.  There is nothing more important than that!

II.  We Worship For Formation.

Worship forms us.  It shapes our soul.  It instructs the heart.  The truth about us in our fallen-ness is that we have a bent towards idolatry.  In the course of life, we gravitate quite naturally towards worshiping things that we ought not worship.  Money, things, status, relationships, other people and ourselves.

Our weekly worship is a corrective to that bent.  Worship points us to the God who made us.  To the God who sustains and provides for our every need.  Our weekly worship is structured to rehearse salvation in Jesus Christ.  We open with a call to worship from the Word of God.  We focus our worship with a prayer of praise.  We sing God’s praises.  We invite the kids forward because we want them to understand that they too are called to worship God.  We hear the Word read and are instructed by the Word in preaching.  We celebrate the sacraments.  We hear a charge and find comfort in a benediction as we leave here to go back into the world.

Worship is an intentional effort to form and shape our lives so that it is God-shaped and Christocentric.

That is our liturgy.  But, understand that all of Scripture is liturgy.  You saw how Moses used Genesis to point Israel to worship.  The rest of Scripture is no different.  Take the Psalter, for example.  I find it very purposeful and intentional that this collection of Psalms ends with the last eight (143-150) offering continual praise to God.

The end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, ends the same way the Psalter ends.  With praise to God.  Check out this pattern.

Rev. 1:5-7 (ESV)  John: To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.  Even so. Amen.

Rev. 4:8-11 (ESV) Four Living Creatures and the Twenty-Four Elders sing a new song:…They never cease to say, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!"  And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, "Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created."

Rev. 7:9-10 (ESV) I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

The Bible is, from Genesis to Revelation, a self-contained worship service.  When we read and study and meditate upon it, it is forming a habit of holiness in us – pointing us to God and His salvation in His one and only Son, in the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit.

III.  We Worship For Service.

Worship is for service.  It is here for our spiritual service.  In the Old Testament, there was a sacrificial system that was quite complex.  It pointed to the way God was to be worshiped.  How sins could be forgiven.  The sacrifices also showed what God would do for us in Jesus Christ.  However, after Jesus came, the sacrificial system was abrogated.  No need for it.  In Jesus, there is a once and for all sacrifice for sins.  The book of Hebrews makes this quite clear.  But, the writer of this New Testament book says that there is a different kind of sacrifice we offer now in Jesus.  It is spiritual sacrifice.  Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (Heb. 13:15 ESV).

This is the service that we offer each Lord’s Day.  We have a better sacrifice.  We have a better temple.  We have a better heavenly city that will one day descend upon us.  Let God’s people offer a continual stream of praise for their spiritual sacrifices.  Together with the people of God.  For no small reason does the reason does Hebrews exhort us that we consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25 ESV).


Let me close where I began.  Worship.  Why bother?  Bother.  Listen, you may be able to serve Jesus by following the author’s advice that I quoted at the top of the sermon.  You may be able to worship in the mountains in solitude; or at the beach, or even sleeping in on Sunday morning.  But let me remind you, that the week is long.  If you figure eight hours of sleep, that leaves you with six days of 96 waking, productive hours to have your fun; look for opportunities to serve Jesus with strangers and recreate with you friends and family.  God calls you out on one day to worship Him in holiness.  There is nothing like it.

Listen, we get excited about so many lesser things in this life.  I love a good concert.  If the group is good, I never want it to end.  I feel the same way about a good movie.  I love football season.  I want it to go on and on.  I anticipate vacations.  I get excited about things that in the end really have no eternal significance.  I suspect that all of you are a lot like me.

The Christian Sabbath.  The Lord’s Day.  Sunday.  This day is for you.  It is for you to get excited about as you anticipate the Day.

You have heard the Word of God.  Please consider it well.   Amen.

August 4, 2013, 11:52 AM

Oh, Bother.

I quoted from Jeremy Myers book in Sunday's sermon on the topic of worship.  Here is the full quote:

People stop attending church, not because they are rebelling against God, but because as a faithful member of the church, they are following God.  People want to love others like Jesus, and for whatever reason, sitting in a particular building at a certain time of the week hinders their ability to love and serve others in the way they feel Jesus is calling them.

Pastors and church leaders should not fight against this but should rejoice in it.  We should celebrate the fact that people want to follow Jesus into the world by loving and serving others.  Their departure from our church services should not be viewed as a threat but as a blessing.  It should be viewed as another step in the life of faith.  When people leave the church building to be the church in the world, it is a beautiful expression of the worldwide movement of the Spirit of God upon the people of God as the gospel of God expands the Kingdom of God.

This is why giving people permission to leave church is so important (many will eventually leave anyway).  Since many people are thinking of leaving, why not shock the socks off them and tell them to not come!  Rather than make them sneak out the door, rather than making them feel guilty for not attending church, rather than forcing them to come up with lame excuses as to why they “missed church,” why not show them the door by giving them permission to follow Jesus wherever He leads, even if it is away from the Sunday morning church service?

In fact, once we think about it, “missing church” and “attending church” should not even be in the church’s vocabulary.  Such terminology reveals a tendency to view church as a function and a place, rather than the people of God who follow Jesus into the world.  If we really want to help the people of God follow Jesus out into the world, we need to put up big EXIT signs on all our doors and lead people out of the building where they are trapped.  We need to send them out into the world where God can work in them and through them to bring light, love, and hope to the hurting people all around.  If people are exiting the church building anyway, the role of the pastor and church leader is not to block them or condemn them, but to bless them and guide them on their way.  Let’s invite people into the adventure of loving God and loving others outside the brick walls and stained glass of a church building.  One way we can show the people we are serious about this is by canceling the church service.

("Put Service Back Into The Church Service:  Making Your Church Service Look More Like Jesus" e-book by Jeremy Myers, Redeeming Press, 2013.  pp.27-28.)

As I said in my sermon, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the some of the issues in the church that I believe drove Jeremy to such an extreme position.  And, make no mistake, what he wrote is an extremely extreme position.  Yes, many pastors and church going people are deluding themselves into thinking that by just being in the room at 11:00 every Sunday, and every other time the doors are open, that they are good Christians.  However, that is no good reason to throw out God's ordained purposes for the building up and worshiping privileges that He has given to His Church.  I'm sorry that Myers experience in formal ministry was so negative.  

July 22, 2013, 1:57 PM

Sermon Text from Sunday

"Gabbing with God"   July 21, 2013.

Text:  James 5:13-18

I want to talk about prayer today.  You are probably wondering why I would choose a sermon title like "Gabbing with God."  Gabbing is chatter-like conversation that is characterized by thoughtlessness, informality, relative unimportance and aimlessness.  In other words, gabbing is an insignificant flapping of the jaws.  Let me quickly add that my purpose for such a title was not for humorous affect or to be trite or profane.

My aim is that you might understand that it is okay to just "gab" with God.  Prayer invites you into a close, personal, warm relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Prayer invites you to bring all matters of the heart and mind to the foot of the Throne.  From the profound and sublime and serious on the one end of the spectrum, to the insignificant and uncanny and superfluous on the other side of the equation.  There is nothing too small, trifling or out of bounds to bring to God in prayer.

Some classic prayer passages in the New Testament lead me to believe that I am not guilty of the awful preacher sin of exegetical overload here:  1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says,  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.... (ESV).  Ephesians 6:18, ...Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. (ESV).  Colossians 4:2, Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. (ESV).

I want you to note that not only are we encouraged to pray about all things, but note as well the frequency of prayer.  It is continuous.  AlwaysWithout ceasingAll timesContinue.  Not just an occasional activity.  Not just when you have something real serious to pray about.

In our passage this morning, the letter from James closes with a powerful, practical lesson on prayer:

Is anyone among you suffering?  Let him pray.  Is anyone cheerful?  Let him sing praise.  Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him....And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick....Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:13-15, 16 ESV).

However, even though the words of the Lord's Prayer rolls off the tongue effortlessly each Sunday, we just don't seem to do it much outside the formality of the worship service.  In spite of the Biblical exhortations to open up and let it flow in prayer, we do not pray as we should.  Theoretically, we believe that the Bible teaches us to pray.  We say that we believe in the power of prayer.  We do ask people to pray for us.  We reassure others that we can and will pray for them.  We know that we should be praying.  But we don't.

I wonder why sometimes.  I want to share a few reasons that prayer is neglected. Some reasons/excuses that I want you to think about:

  1. You don't really believe what you say you believe about prayer.
  2. You secretly think that prayer is just a crutch for weak people.  Superstitious, even.
  3. Or, on the flip side of that, you have a nagging suspicion that prayer accomplishes nothing.
  4. Sadly, some of you have been let down before when you prayed and didn't get an answer or the outcome you desired.
  5. You don't think that you are good enough to pray.
  6. You suppose that you are not as eloquent as you need to be.  That it is too hard and demanding.
  7. Perhaps, some of you think you don't need to pray because somebody else will do it.
  8. You delude yourself into thinking that life will happen just the same whether or not you pray.
  9. You imagine that prayer is only for the really holy people that really love Jesus.
  10. You will do it one day.  Some day.  When I get more religious, or something.
  11. You are embarrassed about praying publicly in front of other people.  You're self-conscious.
  12. You believe that prayer is a waste of time.
  13. You don't want to make time to pray.  Too tired.  Too busy.  Too many irons in the fire.  Too pressed for time.  Too depressed.  Too stressed.  Too distracted.  Too disappointed.  Too scared.  Too angry.  Too bad.  Too skeptical.  Too selfish.  Too protective of your free time.  Need more me-time.  Too many other things to do that seem more urgent.  No need to pray now.  Maybe someday.  Some time.  Not now.

Did I miss anything?

Two quick stories on prayer.

A couple of weeks ago, we hosted 19 young people and 4 chaperones from Wyckoff Reformed Church in New Jersey.  We invited them to our 9:15 prayer service before they headed out the door to their mission project in Bluefield.  I am afraid that we may have scarred them for life.  As is my custom, I open the time to share prayers.  Pray as you are led.  The sanctuary was virtually silent for the entire time outside of my own and a few other folks who come regularly to the service.  Awkward.  I will never forget the looks on the chaperones faces as they walked out that morning.  They were looks of genuine bewilderment.  They didn't know what to say.  Words just didn't come.  Seems that prayer doesn't come easy.

Now, lest you think that I am holding myself above it all as high and mighty.  Let me tell you, when I was working as an intern during seminary, my mentor, Rod Pinder, was what I would call a model of contemplative prayer not seen since the days of the Desert Fathers.  I used to look at going to prayer gatherings as literally, going to work.  I mean, work, in the Monday sense.  He would run those gatherings long.  I used to always tell him that I was merely a blue-collar prayer man, so I couldn't do the contemplative stuff -- but I don't think he ever bought that line.  However, I must say, I was amazed at his endurance.  His passion.  His desire to share his life in prayer.  His desire to invite others into that joy.  His sense of timelessness when it came to prayer time. It wasn't perfunctory with Rod.  Every word he uttered came with the weight of glory.  I was out of my element -- but I should not have been.  Prayer is our oxygen.  Prayer is our lifeline.  Prayer is our heartbeat.

Let me close with a couple of observations about prayer.

I have suggested that prayer can be big or small; important or shallow.  Nothing that I will tell you now in closing changes that.  Gab away.  But, I do want to suggest a couple of things now that should ground your prayer life on solid ground.

1.  God uses your prayer to change you.

There is a scene in the movie Shadowlands, a movie about the life of C.S Lewis and his marriage to Joy Davidman.  Scandalous at the time since Joy was a American divorcée many years Lewis' junior.  Joy tragically died of cancer at the age of 45, and Lewis lost his faith for a time in the midst of his grief and loss.  He struggled mightily to get it back.  There is a closing scene where he has recovered some sense of joy in life and one of his friends notes how hard he has been praying lately and that God was answering his prayer.  Lewis responds that that was not why he was praying.  "I was pray because I can't help myself.  I pray because I'm helpless.  I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking or sleeping."  As the others depart, Lewis movingly adds to himself:  "Prayer doesn't change God, it changes me."

2.  God uses your Prayer to Accomplish His Purposes.

The second, and final thought that I would leave you with this morning.  We tend to think in categories of whether or not prayer "works" for me.  But I don't think that's very firm ground to stand on.  In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus says that we are to pray "Your kingdom come [Father], your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matt. 5:10 ESV).  Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14 ESV).

Note well the way our passage closes in James.  Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.  Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (James 5:17-18 ESV).  Elijah was a normal person.  Just like you and I.  He wasn't perfect.  He had his bad days, too.  But, God used him greatly to accomplish his purposes through him!

Please never forget, The prayer[s] of [God's people are] powerful and effective. (cf. James 5:16 NIV)

You have heard the Word of God.  Now consider it so very well.   Amen.

July 20, 2013, 11:35 AM

Guest Preacher

On August 25th, we will have the privilege of hearing from Rev. Lowell Sykes in our pulpit.  I am pleased that he graciously accepted our invitation.  Lowell was formerly the pastor at Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg where he retired in 1999. Virginia for many years.  Many friends of New Hope have been the recipients of his wise and warm pastorate.  Recently, Lowell transferred his ministerial credentials into the Mid-Atlantic Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.   

June 8, 2013, 8:16 PM

Food to Chew On

This is the homework assignment for Sunday's sermon (06/09/2013).  These were my closing points.  I want you to think about them this week as you go about your business.

First of all, the reason that we exhorted in Matthew 5:33-37 to be truthful in all things is because the God that we belong to is Truth Himself and he has been faithful in all of his promises made to us.

Secondly, we are to be truthful because our truthfulness reflects the One who called and saved us.

  • You may be the only significant evidence of heaven that someone may encounter in a lifetime.
  • You may be the only evidence of Scripture in someone’s life.
  • You may be the only trace of holiness that someone might ever witness.
  • Your purpose is to be a living vessel of God’s truth in the world.
  • I believe that you are intended to be the foretaste of what God is going to do in this world when the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness when Jesus comes back.

May 26, 2013, 5:52 PM

Buddy Jesus?

The conventional wisdom in church circles goes something this:  Only preach and teach from the Gospels and you won't offend anyone.  Stay away from Paul and definitely don't go preaching that God of wrath, Old Testament stuff, and you'll be fine.  Keep it  all about "Love, Love, Love!"

May I please weigh in on that observation?  What knucklehead came up with that line?  Obviously someone who doesn't know their Bible or the flow of redemptive thought very well.  Let's remind ourselves of something that should be very obvious:  At the end of the Gospels (all four of them), Jesus isn't a successful, popular mega church preacher.  He isn't preaching in a converted basketball arena to 30,000 people and an even larger TV audience with scads of book deals.  True enough, he has risen from the dead and is alive at the right hand of God the Father Almighty forever more to make intercession for us.  But... he was put to death on a cross because his message gave an abundance of offense.  (To put it mildly.)

The Romans didn't have much use for him.  His disciples all ran for the hills.  His own people called out for his death.  And, the religious-in-the-know people smugly gloried in satisfaction at a job well done.  Jesus didn't win too many friends during his earthly ministry.  In modern terms, he was a failure in ministry.  He was "run out of his church."

Of course, of course, he had the words of life.  He was and is and always will be, Lord.  He is God.  But, the message that Jesus brings is hard to take...especially when you're a sinner, like most of us.

Check that, ALL of us.

We don't want anyone telling us how to live.  We have minds.  We are able to reason.  We can sort through things.  Thanks, Lord, anyway.

So, why do I always hear this ill-informed advice about preaching from the Gospels to stay safe and off other people's toes?

I have a couple thoughts on this.

First, many people believe that the Gospels are mostly about Jesus telling some really neat parables about how to have a better life.  They are down-to-earth stories that are practical.  Helpful for every-day living.  Being a better dad, husband, neighbor.  How to have a great marriage.  Indispensable advice on how to manage money and be a good steward.

Huh?  I don't think so.  The parables are not about how to have your best life now.  I think Jesus said something to the effect that the parables he told were to mask truth from the uninitiated ear.  The parables were hard to grasp.  The parables were meant to conceal.  Why do you think the disciples were always asking Jesus, "Hey man, what did you mean a few minutes ago when you were out there teaching the masses?"  You see, the parables were about teaching the nature and reality of the coming Kingdom of God.  They were about revealing God's intent to reverse the curse of the Fall.

Secondly, most people very easily assume that the greatest and only culprits in the Gospels are the scribes and Pharisees.  We assume that the only people in Jesus' cross hairs are the heavies that ultimately get Jesus killed.  Wrong.  The Gospels go pretty rough on the average man or woman in the pew.  Perhaps as we read the Gospels, we ought to be continually asking ourselves, "Is it I, Lord?"

I must tell you quite honestly, I find preaching from the Gospels to be a challenge.  Part of that challenge comes no doubt from the misperceptions -- such as the two lines of thought that I have briefly sketched out above.

But, hold tight, we have just begun to get into the meat of the Sermon on the Mount.  Looking at the full implications of the sixth commandment next week.


May 18, 2013, 11:00 AM

Just Do It!

Let me see if I can remember how to write a blog entry.  No more blues.  I'm back!  We are are continuing our series in the Sermon on the Mount tomorrow.  The topic is about being "Salt & Light."  That's what Jesus calls us to be to the world.  We will explore those two metaphors in the sermon.  I was going to open in a kind of cheesy way, but thankfully, I opted to do it here instead.  I was going to begin by talking about slogans and mottos.  We see this quite a bit in the commercial world.  When companies wan to sell their product, they come up with a catchy slogan that captures the spirit of their product.

For example, Nike's "Just Do It."  Captures their spirit of adventure and getting down to the business of life.  Don't sit on the sidelines -- just get out there.  Just do it!

Apple came up with "Think Different."  Obviously a slap in the face of Microsoft!

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's memorable Latin phrase, "Art for Art’s Sake" seems to say it all.  Art is good enough and sweet enough in its own right.  We watch movies for the sheer entertainment value of the experience.  Everything wlse that comes with it is icing on the cake.

Walmart: "Save Money. Live Better."  Enough said?

The Olympic Games: "Faster, Higher, Stronger."

Lexus: "The Pursuit of Perfection."

The United States Marine Corps: "Semper Fidelis" (Always Faithful).

These slogans describe a way of life that points to their product.  With Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, he uses two memorable metaphors that speak volumes.  "You are the salt of the earth" and "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden." (Matt. 5:13-14 ESV).  This describes not just a way of life.  It is the way of our life.

That's what we're up to tomorrow.  Aren't you glad I didn't go cheese for the opening tomorrow?

April 21, 2013, 12:12 PM

Sermon Text: "Dead in your Trespasses...but Alive to Christ!"

Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

Doing a sermon on a good Reformed topic today.  Calvinism, predestination, election and the implications of believing that the Bible actually teaches this!  To show you that this Calvinist has a sense of humor and can take it as good as he gives it.  Consider this light story.  A Calvinist, as you may know, believes fervently in the sovereignty of God is all of life, most especially in salvation.

A Calvinist dies and finds himself at a crossroads where there are two signs pointing down two different roads.  One says in big letters, "Predestination Believers" and the other says "Free Will Believers."  Being a Calvinist and believing in predestination, he takes the Predestination road.  He walks down the road and comes to a big golden door with the word PREDESTINATION written above it.  He knocks on the door and an angel opens the door and asks, "What brings you to my door?"  The Calvinist answers, "There were two signs and I chose the one that said "Predestination Believers."  The angel asks, "You chose it?"  "Well then, you can't come in."  And he slammed the door shut.  The Calvinist is crushed and walks back to the crossroads where the two signs were.  He then reluctantly takes the Free Will Believers road and comes to another huge golden door with the words FREE WILL written above it.  Another angel opens the door and asks the same question, "What brings you to my door?"  And the Calvinist says, "I had no choice!"

As we consider the subject matter of what I just read in Ephesians 2, a classic book by the great Reformer Martin Luther comes to mind:  The Bondage of the Will (1525).  [Literally from Latin title:  "On Un-free Will" or "Concerning Bound Choice"]  Bondage of the Will is a rather lengthy response from Luther to a book written by the humanist scholar, Erasmus.  To briefly sum it up, Erasmus wrote a caustic critique of Luther’s teaching on predestination and election.  The book came to be known simply as Erasmus’ Diatribe.  His argument went something like this -- and I do recognize that I’m grossly simplifying a complex line of reasoning! -- Why bother with this troublesome doctrine?  It’s way too controversial and dangerous.  Furthermore, fallen men and women may be damaged goods, but they still have some capacity, meager though it is, to choose God.

Luther responds by meticulously taking apart Erasmus’ argument one sentence at a time!  In one well-known passage, Luther compares fallen humanity to a horse standing between the devil and God.  He says that the horse is either ridden by the devil or God.  The horse doesn’t decide who rides him!  To Luther, people do not have free will; only God can be described as having a free will.

I.  The Reality of being Dead in our Sins

I think, based on what we read in Ephesians 2, clearly Luther was on the right track.  You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air[!] (Eph. 2:1-2 ESV).  We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:3 ESV).  However, God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.... (Eph. 2:4-6 ESV).  According to Paul and Martin Luther, choosing God is not your choice.  Dead people don't choose.  Dead people can't choose.  God chooses you!

The rest of our passage in Ephesians 2 unpacks this radical thought that we were dead as a doornail in sin until God made us alive in Christ:  Once again, 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).  Your belonging to God and your eternal salvation is not about what you have done for it or even what you should be doing for it; it’s about what God has already done for you and for what God continues to do for you.

Back in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 6-9, Moses tells Israel the same thing.  They, says he, not to forget God in the midst of blessing:[W]hen it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deut 6:10-12).

But, at the same time, Moses reminds Israel that it’s not because of their righteousness that they’re finally going to realize the blessings of the Promise Land.  "Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, 'It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land....Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. (Deu 9:4, 6 ESV).

To put this in a more contemporary setting, suppose you inherited a lavishly furnished mansion; finely manicured yard; two luxury cars in the garage, etc.  Would you go around bragging to your friends about your achievement of such a lofty status?  Of course not!  You realize that these things were given to you.  An unearned gift.  You were merely a beneficiary of somebody else’s hard work!

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

But, I need to take a turn here and give us a pastoral reality check on the way that this teaching can go so wrong.

II.  The Joy of being Alive to Christ.

It happens as we are basking in the wonderful glow of God’s goodness towards us in salvation, we might be tempted to do what Peter did on the Mount of Transfiguration.  “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” (Matt. 17:4).  Let’s stay here forever!  But a dangerous attitude sets in if we leave things here on the mountaintop of Ephesians 2:8-9.  It goes something like this:

Because God does the electing and the choosing, there’s nothing more for me to do.  Why should I share my faith?  God’s already determined everything, hasn’t he?  Incidentally, that’s how Presbyterians got their unfortunate reputation as “the frozen chosen.”

Immediately following the truth that we are saved by grace through faith alone 2:10 declares:

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we would walk in them.”

Here is a corrective to a perverted Calvinism!  When Paul says that we are God’s workmanship, he’s really saying that we are a new creation – (Cf. 2 Cor. 5:17) Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come[!] – In Christ, you have died to your old way of life.  When God saves you, you don’t then become a stagnant pond; or perhaps should I say, a frozen pond!  Quite the opposite.

Richard Mouw, who is the former President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, commented on this point very ably in his splendid little book entitled, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport.  In that book, Mouw challenges the caricature of the typical Calvinist.  He writes:

“Suppose a person is elected to be president of the United States and then spends the first year of his presidency talking a lot about the fact that he has been elected.  In his talks to the nation, he tells us how thrilled he is that – of all the people who might have been chosen for the job – was elected to the office of president.  He commissions studies to find out exactly how he got elected.  He regularly thanks those citizens who cast their votes for him.  He also talks much about his predecessors – people before him who had been elected to the presidency – and tells us how privileged he considers himself to be counted in the company of such a distinguished group of elected officials.  Surely there would come a point where we would all urge him to think about an important question he seems to be ignoring:  What were you elected for?  What did we elect you to do?” (pp.64-65)

Ephesians 2:10 says you have been re-created by God, in Christ Jesus for good works!  Hear me well, you’re not saved by works; but at the same time, remember that you’re surely not saved from works!  And it is precisely here where it gets a little sticky.

Paul says that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”  There are numerous ways that commentators have tried to tone down this difficult verse – like translating it “We were prepared beforehand to walk in good works.”  Another interpretation that hits, in my estimation, closer to the truth is that the good works that were prepared in advance for us to do refers to the godly behavior encouraged in the rest of this letter to the Ephesians:

  • 4:1-2  I [Paul] therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.... (ESV).
  • 4:7  But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. (ESV).
  • 4:11-12  [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.... (ESV).
  • 4:15  ...Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.... (ESV).
  • 4:22-24  ...Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (ESV).
  • 5:1-2  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (ESV).
  • 5:8-10  ...At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. (ESV).
  • 6:10-13  Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (ESV).

God not only chose us before the foundation of the world; he also prepared these good works that we would perform as well.

You have heard the Word of God, now consider it well.   Amen.

March 10, 2013, 12:46 PM

Sermon Text - I, Jonah: “Because He First Loved Us” Sermon #7 of 7

Sermon Text:  Jonah 4:1-11

As we begin this morning, listen once again to the words of this book; God's final word to Jonah:

…should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left…? (4:11 ESV).

Once again, God refers to this capital of the Assyrian Empire as that great city.  Remember, he did that at twice before when he gave Jonah the original charge to go to Nineveh.  I don't think this was merely a description of Nineveh's large size geographically or population-wise; but more specifically, that it was an important city to God.  The people in this city, all 120,000 of them, mattered to God.  He created them.  They belonged to him, as all nations on earth belong to God.

The intriguing thing here is that the Assyrians were the enemies of God’s people.  In just over forty years from the time of Jonah, the Assyrians would storm into the northern kingdom of Israel and scatter the people into exile.  The Assyrians were a ruthless people on the warpath.  Jonah wasn’t far off in his assessment of these people.

As you know well by now, Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh.  Jonah did not want to preach in Nineveh.  Jonah did not want those people to have an opportunity to repent and escape disaster.

You remember from last week, Jonah said, that is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (4:2 ESV). “I knew you were that kind of God.”

In the remainder of chapter four of Jonah this morning, we get more details on what happened after he finished his preaching in Nineveh.  I believe that Jonah 4:1-4 -- what we covered last week -- was a brief summary of the exchange between God and Jonah with the prophet's prayer rant.  Jonah 4:5-11 then expands on Jonah’s encounter with God.  (That's why I am including what we covered last week in the reading today.)

Let me summarize the rest of the story:

Picking up with 4:5, Jonah has finished preaching.  He is leaving Nineveh in the wake of a city cut to the heart with repentance.  It seems that Jonah is holding out hope against hope that his preaching will have no final effect on the people of the city.  [Like my kids hoping that dad will forget to ask them to do a chore!]  He made a booth for himself there.  He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. (4:5 ESV).  He is ready for some divine hell-fire even though he suspects God may relent based on what he knows about God.  Jonah really wants God to bring disaster upon the city.

And here’s where God comes into the picture.  He causes a plant, probably a garden variety weed.  It brings Jonah a great deal of pleasure, keeping the hot scorching sun from burning the top of his head.  In an intentional touch of irony, it says that Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. (Jon. 4:6 ESV).  Remember that Jonah was exceedingly (4:1 ESV) displeased and angry when he found out that God wasn’t going to follow through on his threat to destroy Nineveh.

The next morning arrives and still nothing has happened to the city; but God appoints a worm to attack Jonah's beloved plant and the weed withers dead in the heat of the day.  Making matters worse, the scorching hot, dry east wind then blew and beat down even harder on Jonah’s poor little head.

They say that in the Middle East, when these hot winds blow -- called siroccos -- some crimes committed during the duration of the heat result in judicial leniency because these hot winds make people do crazy things!

Poor Jonah couldn’t take anymore:  "It is better for me to die than to live." (4:8 ESV).  “Nineveh is still standing…and to make matters worse, my shade has withered and died.  Life is not worth the living.  Just do me in now, God!”

As the book closes, God asks Jonah a question:  "Do you do well to be angry for the plant?" (4:9 ESV).  In other words, "Is it right for you to be angry?" (NIV).  “Jonah, it sprang up overnight like any other weed, nothing special, quite ordinary, and yet you are so concerned about this inconsequential weed?  You didn’t plant it.  You didn't do anything to bring it up.  You didn’t tend it.  And yet, it is that important?”  No, Jonah, it is not right for you to be angry!

But this is where God drives the message home.  A question that demands a "yes"Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city? (4:11 ESV).  Surely people are more important that a weed?  Even the Ninevites.

From what we know of Nineveh at this time in their history, they were in economic turmoil.  There were a couple of natural disasters that had decimated the population.  Throw in a total eclipse of the sun to a superstitious people with a weak king and poor leadership, and the people are described as not know[ing] their right hand from their left (4:11 ESV).  Lost in their troubles.  A people in distress and great need of healing and comfort.

The description of God throughout the Old Testament is that, while he won't in any way excuse un-repented of sin, he is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. (4:2 ESV).

The apostle John in the New Testament adds more with the claim that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16).  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…. (Jn. 3:16 ESV).  John says, we love because he first loved us. (1 Jn. 4:19 ESV).  We know love and how to love only because God has first modeled it in word and deed.

As we have unpacked this story of Jonah, I have often made the comparison between Jonah and us.  Hence the “I, Jonah” for the title to this series.  That is right and proper.  However, I want to present another perspective here for you to think about.  Jonah also represents the attitudes and biases of his own home country, Israel.

Think with me here.  Israel was created to be a “son” to God.  They were the people of his special choosing.  “The apple of his eye.” (Deut. 32:10; Zech. 2:8)  His hand-picked people out of all the nations on earth.  This is the part that Jonah and his people got.  This is what they latched on to with great gusto.  We're special.  However, Jonah, and the nation of Israel forgot why they were special.  They forgot why they were chosen in the first place.

You see, Israel became kind of a club.  Club God.  They began to believe that it was their job to keep it entirely pure.  No one else was to be admitted unless they did all the special little things to gain admittance; but for the most part – they kept the world out because the world was dirty and evil and bad – just like those awful Ninevites.  It is to be avoided.  It is to be shunned.  Must not get dirty.

But, God didn’t save Israel to become a museum exhibit - don't touch, don't come close!  God chose Israel to be his ambassadors to the world.  God chose Israel to show the way back to God.  God chose Israel to show how to know and worship rightly the God of the universe.  In their right worship, Israel was to show how reconciliation could take place.  In their sacrifices and offerings, they were to show how sin could be forgiven.  This is why God said to Israel in Exodus, now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (19:5-6 ESV).

This is what Jonah did not fully comprehend (or would not).  This is what Israel could never fully comprehend (or would not).  Is our response like that of Jonah and Israel?  Do we look upon the world as a bad, evil, dirty place to be avoided?  Do we rather relish that God will judge all wickedness one day?  Do we want to see the really bad people get what's coming to them?  Would we rather sit on our relationship with Jesus and with-hold it from people who really don't deserve it?

Today, we live on the other side of the coming of Jesus Christ.  We must realize that we are in the same exact place as Jonah on that eastern hillside overlooking Nineveh and the world.  We are, according to Galatians 6:16, the Israel of God (ESV).  We have been saved through faith by the life and death of our Savior.  We have been saved to serve, not to sit on the sidelines.  We haven’t been called to seal our church doors and keep the world out.  As Paul say in 2 Corinthians, we are ambassadors for Christ, [and] God [is] making his appeal through us. (2 Cor. 5:20 ESV).

The message of Jonah is that the love of God compels him to seek out those who have lost their way; those who are hurting; those who are blind and need sight; those who are dead in their sin.  For that is where he found us!  And he uses his people to bear that message in word and deed.

Thus ends the book of Jonah.

You have heard the Word of God.  Please consider it so very well.   Amen.

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