On the Plains of Moab Blog
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February 6, 2013, 3:14 PM

This Sunday: Saved by the Ichthus

I love double entendre in a sermon title!


February 4, 2013, 7:59 AM

Sermon Text - I, Jonah: "The Joy of Sin" Sermon #2 of 7

February 3, 2013.

Text:  Jonah 1:4-16

Last week, we met the only prophet in the Bible who had the nerve to say "No" to God.

No, Lord, I will not go to Nineveh.

No, Lord, I will not take your word to those people.

No Lord, I will not be a part of any message of hope to my enemies.

No, Lord, I quit.  Find another prophet to do your dirty work.

In the book of Jonah is about a reluctant prophet.  His stubbornness; his surliness, and his pride.  Jonah hates the Ninevites because they are notorious sinners.  The reality is that Jonah is a pretty big sinner himself.  The message to us in the book of Jonah is that we can be just like Jonah.  That's why I said last week that some of us get every morning and head to Tarshish!

This morning, Jonah experiences the consequences of his decision to say "No" to God.  So [Jonah] paid the fare and went down into [the ship], to go...to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.  But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. (Jon. 1:3-4 ESV).  The consequences of Jonah's disobedience is judgment.  God is not going to let Jonah quit and run away.

The next thing we see is the response of the sailors on the ship.  Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god.  And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. (Jon. 1:5 ESV).  But where was Jonah in all this?  It says that Jonah had gone below deck into the cargo hold and had fallen fast asleep, totally oblivious to the storm and all of the frantic activity on the ship.

It is quite revealing that just after Jonah told the Lord "No," he began a descent further and further into his sin.  After his initial call from God, went down to Joppa.  He found a ship heading out to sea, and he went down onto the ship.  After he boarded the ship, he went down further into the hold of the ship.  Of course, if you know the rest of the story, he will go further down yet!

Another revealing detail here is the response of the sailors.  They are terrified.  "The mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god....So the captain came and said to him, 'What do you mean, you sleeper?  Arise, call out to your god!  Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.'" (Jon 1:5-6 ESV).  They realize that something is not right.  They know that they are experiencing something that only a god can handle.  Everyone of them begin to call on his own god; the god of his family; the god of the country that they come from.  Any god will do!  Their belief may not be orthodox in knowing the God of Israel, but they do have a proper fear of god that their passenger down in the cargo hold obviously doesn't share.

When Jonah is hauled onto the deck of the ship, the sailors are perplexed that he doesn't seem to care about their fate.  They cast lots to see who might be behind all of this divine fury, and obviously, Jonah draws the two light sides up.  (Two darks meant "no"; a light and a dark meant "throw again.")

The sailors wanted to know if they had offended Jonah.  They wanted to know if Jonah had offended his god?  They wanted to know if they were perhaps helping him do something wrong?  Has the prophet committed a crime?  Are they guilty by association?  Who was Jonah's god?  From Moab?  Philistia?  Edom?  Phoenicia?  Israel?  The god he served would tell them much.

Jonah says, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." (Jon 1:9 ESV).  Incredibly here, Jonah seems to be berating the sailors.  "My God is the God who created the heaven and earth.  The God who made all that you see.  He is not a regional deity.  He isn't limited to a particular country.  He holds the entire world in the palm of his hand.  Your god is too small.  Your god is not a god at all.  Pagans!"

Can you hear the irony dripping out of this prophet's mouth?  Jonah isn't even anywhere near practicing what he preaches.  His words are kind of like a mom or dad telling their children, "Do as I say; not as I do."  Let me tell you the way it is.  Never mind that I do not live according to the sage advice I give.

Under such extreme  circumstances, you might expect the next thing for Jonah to say would be, "Yes, I am the cause of this tempest.  Oh, gracious Lord, please forgive my stubbornness.  Please forgive my wayward heart.  Please allow me now to return to land so that I might complete the mission to Nineveh you have given me, for you are a God of second chances.  For this I give you rich thanks!"

No way.  Instead we get this, "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you." (Jon. 1:12 ESV).  Jonah realizes that he has disobeyed.  He is guilty.  He knows that he deserves the death penalty for running from God.  But, unbelievably, he doesn't ask for mercy or a second chance because he would rather die than go to Nineveh.  He would rather be dead than see any mercy or any forgiveness be offered to the hated Ninevites.

And so, the sailors, after much consternation and attempts to row back to land, finally give in and throw the wayward prophet into the sea to drown.  The judgment is carried through.  The waters close in over his head.

The effect on the sailors is profound.  Before they threw Jonah overboard, they cried out, "O LORD, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you." (Jon. 1:14 ESV).  When the seas calmed down, it says, then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. (Jon. 1:16 ESV).

Now, this probably wasn't a confession of the God of Israel.  Perhaps the sailors were just adding Yahweh to the roster of their other gods.  But, their attitudes and hearts seem so different from that of Jonah.

Think about Jonah here.  He says "No" to God, and then it all goes downhill from there.  Down to Joppa.  Down to the ship.  Down into the cargo hold.  Down into the waves of the sea.  He is so depressed and discouraged in his sin that he goes down and drifts off in what must be a fitful slumber in the middle of a raging storm.  When roused by the sailors, he manages to lecture them about theology and right belief in the one, true God, the very beliefs that he is despising by his own actions.  And then, rather than repent and turn his heart back to God, he would rather die than budge an inch.

My friends, this is a picture of sin and judgment.  How often do we handle our own sin the way Jonah handled his?  Growing more and more depressed and discouraged by the tangled webs we weave in life?  Able to spout off correct theology about God and Jesus and the Bible, but a long way from putting into practice even the simplest movements of faith?  Holding onto and cherishing and nourishing our sin, even though it is something that makes us miserable and desiring of death before a change?

Jonah is a picture of the Christian life sometimes.  We run from God many times because we know that living the faith can get uncomfortable sometimes.  Sometimes the things God wants are the things that don't make sense from the world's point of view.  Sometimes what God wants us to do is just too difficult and unreasonable.  Sometimes we love our sin so much and we're convinced that we're so much better off in our sin, that we'd rather disobey God.  Sometimes we just want to throw off the mantle and burden of being a "Christian" to be free to do whatever we please.

As Jonah found out.  That's not always the happiest or healthiest thing to do.  As Paul reminds us in Romans 6:23, ...the wages of sin is death. (ESV).  In other words, the prize, the reward, the paycheck for sin is misery.  It is darkness.  It is finally death.

In closing this sermon today, I want to give you just a bit of a heads up for next week.  I don't want to leave things entirely negative, though when your text ends with so they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea (Jon. 1:15 ESV), it's kind of hard to find a silver lining in the clouds.  But there is.

Remember that in Romans 6:23, it does say, For the wages of sin is death, [but it also says] the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23 ESV).  Next week, we will find the that grace of God is greater than all our sin.  It will be a whale of an advertisement for what God will do in and through Jesus Christ.

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

January 31, 2013, 9:02 AM

Point of Clarification

Some of you may have noticed that one of the persistent themes in my preaching centers on the fact that we are all sinners before a holy God.  Yes, even after we have become Christians and have the Holy Spirit indwelling within -- we are still sinners, none the less.  I have always marveled at Paul's lament in Romans 7 -- The things I want to do, I don't do; and the things I don't want to do, I do!  Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?!  The beginning of Romans 8 is always a welcome relief.  There is NOW therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus!

Now, that's the Christian life for me.  A pilgrimage of  trial and error.  Successes and a boatload of failures.  Joys and heartaches.  Victory and plenty of besetting sin...along the way.  That IS life.  That is what I try to communicate week after week.  Please do not ever assume that I would ever say that it is okay to remain where you are in sin.  I know that we are all there more times than we would care to admit.  That's okay.  But don't ever settle for staying there.  That's not what God wants from us!  The Christian life is hard.  Holiness is never a simple 1-2-3 step program.  It is a lifetime work with the Holy Spirit gaining traction in your life, slowly but surely.  That's called sanctification.  My preaching will always acknowledge reality. But I hope that it will also encourage you to move forward in a relentless, pursuit of Christ-likeness.

This brings me to one other point of clarification.  Last week, as we opened up the Jonah series, I talked about Jonah's sin of hating his neighbor.  In this case, the Ninevites of the Assyrian Empire.  As an application, I noted how we sometimes dislike or judge people because they look or act differently from us.  Now, when some preachers use this approach, they aim to level the philosophical playing field.  That is to say, we're all on the same track in life.  We are all heading in the same direction.  We all worship the same god.  Why discriminate?  Yada, yada, yada.

Well, that's not my approach.  We are to love our neighbor NOT because we all, in some mystical sense, deep down all serving the same cause [read: god].  No!  We are to love our neighbors because they are all created in His image; and for that reason, have immeasurable worth in and of themselves.  And because they are created in His image, they ultimately belong to Him; and they all need to be called back home. Called back into a relationship with the one, true God -- who we know in the Lord Jesus Christ.  The sailors on that ship needed the God of Israel!  The Ninevites needed the God of Israel.  Did they get that in the end.  Probably not.  But, if not, it's not because God didn't want them!  Jonah failed to see that mission of Israel was to reach out.  To be ambassadors to the world for the Kingdom of God.

Hope that makes sense, and gives a little perspective for this preacher's pet peeves.

January 28, 2013, 7:49 AM

Sermon Text - I, Jonah: "No, Sir." Sermon #1 of 7

January 27, 2013.

Text:  Jonah 1:1-3

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai…. (1:1 ESV).  Our Jonah was a prophet from the northern kingdom of Israel around 760 BC.  We know this because in 2 Kings 14:25, we find that Jonah predicted, through another word from God, that Jeroboam II’s kingdom would expand its borders greatly.  Jonah prophesied that Israel would grow.

Now, Jeroboam II was not considered a very godly king, but he was a very successful king.  Israel prospered during his reign.  They were economically and militarily strong at this time.  Of course, they didn’t always treat the poor among them very well.  They didn’t always follow God’s ways.  But, the times, they were good.

Now we read in between the lines that our Jonah was a very proud Israelite.  An ardent nationalist.  Pro-Israel.  Anti-foreigner.  He knew that the Israelites were the chosen people.  They were the ones likened to the apple of God’s eye.  The rest of the world – well, they were Gentile scum.  The rest of the world, they are sinners who don’t know, don’t want to know, indeed, can’t know God’s good ways and purposes.  Israel was God’s chosen, special nation; and Jonah was his prophet.  Go Israel!

It is to this prophet that we find God’s word arriving.  "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." (1:2 ESV).  Nineveh?  The Assyrian empire?  Those blood-thirsty, violent, stupid, idol-worshiping, undeserving people?  Lord, they are our enemies.  You want me to go there?  Why?

You see, Jonah understood that being called to go to a city to cry out to it was a sign of grace.  Where there is a call for repentance there is the possibility of forgiveness.  No.  This can’t happen.  Not for the city of Nineveh.  Nineveh, part of the Assyrian empire, was indeed deserving of God’s judgment.  This was a brutal, oppressive nation especially to its neighbors.  No question there.

However, here’s the inconvenient truth in the book of Jonah:  God calls Nineveh a great city.  Nineveh, even Nineveh and its inhabitants are important to God.  The Hebrew word normally translated “evil” may also be rendered “troubles” so that you may also reasonably read that call from God like this, "Arise, [Jonah, and] go to Nineveh, that [important] city, and call out against it, for their [troubles have] come up before me."

Nineveh, at this time, was not doing very well.  They had some weak kings [Assur-Dan III] during this period in their history, (773-756 BC).  There were many military and diplomatic setbacks.  There were popular uprisings over weak leadership.  There was famine.  There was a devastating earthquake that hit during this time.  There was even a recorded total eclipse of the sun that, for the Assyrian mind, was an omen of disaster.  The people of Nineveh were ripe for a word from God!

So the drama here at the outset of our book is this:  God wants to show mercy to a brutal, violent, enemy nation!  This is why in the very next sentence you read this, But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish.  So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD. (1:3 ESV).

Tarshish is named three times in this one verse.  Jonah is going to Tarshish rather than going to Nineveh.  Let me remind you that Nineveh was to the east of Israel.  [Ancient Nineveh was located a little north of the present city of Bagdad].  Jonah went west to Joppa, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to board a ship.  You don’t go to Nineveh via the Mediterranean!

Now, nobody knows where in the world this place called Tarshish was located.  Personally, I don’t think Tarshish was a destination city.  The Hebrew word literally means “out to sea.”  Out to sea, somewhere.  Anywhere.  Anywhere not Nineveh.  Jonah went looking for a ship to get out of town.  He didn’t care where at this point.  The point is Jonah went to sea; not Nineveh.

But Jonah rose to flee [out to sea] from the presence of the LORD.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going [out to sea].  So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them [out to sea], away from the presence of the LORD.

Jonah said, “No, sir.”  No, sir, I won’t take your message of grace to Nineveh.  I won’t do it.  I am going to voluntarily send myself into exile.  I am going to move away from the people of God.  I’m quitting.  I’m retired.  I’m no longer in the prophet business.  Please find another more willing, worthy prophet to do that job.  I’m not your man, God.  Find some bleeding heart liberal prophet to do that one, Lord.  Your message is against all I’ve ever stood for.

Think about it here.  Many prophets experienced some personal angst when it came to God’s call.  The prophet Amos cried out “the Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8 ESV).  Jeremiah agonized, Cursed be the day on which I was born!  The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! (Jer. 20:14 ESV); but he did it anyway.  Isaiah felt inadequate to the task, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isa. 6:5 ESV); but he carried through in spite of his doubts.  But, Jonah is the only prophet who says “No, sir” to God!

Now in Jonah, it is easy to get caught up in speculation about the great fish.  Sometimes preachers and teachers tend to focus on the Gentile sailors and citizens of Nineveh in encouraging world missions.  That’s all well and good.  But I think the primary point of Jonah is that we must see ourselves in Jonah.  And that picture that we see of ourselves in Jonah is not a pretty picture.

Jonah complains about the sin of the Nineveh blind to the fact that he is just as much a sinner as they are.  I think it’s interesting that both the Hebrew and the Greek word for sin basically mean to “miss the mark.”  Being off the mark of where you are supposed to be.  Of course, the mark is God’s expressed designs for our life.  Jonah not only misses the mark, he goes in the exact opposite direction!

Let me ask you a question.  Doesn’t this sound like you?  Don’t you prefer missing the mark rather than doing what God wants you to do?  Let me tell you, some of you get up in the morning and head out to Tarshish every morning!  It seems so much easier to get out of town than do what God wants us to do.  You remember a few weeks ago when we talked about what it meant to be a disciple?  It is so much easier to keep to yourself than it is to love you neighbor – especially so if that neighbor happens to be a non-Christian.  Oh, let me make that more personal:  It is so much easier, and even deliciously satisfying to bear a grudge or nurse a wound or offence than it is to forgive someone.  Besides, some people just aren’t good enough for me or God.  Some people don’t deserve God’s love…or mine.  Besides, it is far more satisfying to hate with righteous indignation than to love.  It is much easier to conform to the ways of the world; to go with the flow; than it is to aim and hit God’s perfect holiness.

My friends, as I close this first message, let me tell you, as Jonah is a mirror of our souls, this is the reason that we must be moved to sing the praises of our God in his provision of Jesus Christ.  Apart from Jesus Christ, we must recognize ourselves as no better; or no more deserving than the pagan sailors on the ship or the godless citizens of Nineveh.  Apart from Jesus Christ, we are troubled with our sin, just like Nineveh.  We have nowhere to go, and so out to sea seems as good an option as we could ever hope to find.

But, it is not.

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

January 25, 2013, 5:57 PM

Read Before Sunday!

I started writing my sermon tonight.  My thoughts have been jelling all week.  I spent a wonderful week in Orlando last week reading and praying myself full over Jonah.  But, when it started to come out on my digital paper, I realized that I needed to move the introduction over to the blog.  Sermon would be way too long.  I want Sunday to be focused on the text for the day.  Too important to let that get chiseled down due to time constraints.  I don't want to spend most of my sermon with prolegomena!

So, here is what began as the sermon, now relocated to the blog:

This Sunday we will launch into our new sermon series on the book of Jonah.  As you have already seen in the artwork for the series, there is a picture of our man Jonah front and center, sitting on a hillside, in the shade of a God inspired-gourd, over-looking the "great" city of Nineveh – waiting with great expectation for the city to be destroyed.

The story of Jonah is, I would say, pretty well known.  Most people associate it with that "great" fish that swallowed the prophet so that he had to live there in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.  It is the stuff of nursery and children’s playground art.  (Funny thing, Jonah really isn't a children's story.  Pretty dark, as a matter of fact.)

On the other hand, the story of Jonah is a favorite for mission conference sermons.  A great text for inspiring future missionaries to set out for unreached people groups all over the world, or at least supporting that effort with tangible resources.  When I visited Guatemala a few years ago on a short-term mission trip, I was all ready to preach a sermon that I had hastily prepared from the book of Jonah.  I wasn’t able to deliver the sermon because a demon-possessed man interrupted the service just as I was beginning the sermon with the words, “Why would this preacher come all this way to Guatemala….”  In hindsight, that was a providential interruption because even though I was going to talk about God’s incredible love, the good people of Llano Verde, Guatemala could’ve made the connection that they were the equivalent of the bad, old Ninevites.

Of course, the miraculous in the book of Jonah has sparked endless debate over the historicity of the book.  Fish don’t swallow people.  If they did, you couldn’t survive it.  A gourd doesn’t grow over night and die the next day.  A city as large as Nineveh surely wouldn’t all uniformly repent from a message of a scraggly, grumpy prophet from Israel.  Oh, and animals don’t repent like the book of Jonah says they did.  Putting sackcloth on animals!  Imagine that!

I do not intend to waste my pulpit time chasing the spawn of curiosity.  As far as historicity of the book of Jonah is concerned, there are many good teachers who believe that it is an extended parable not meant to be taken literally.  There are many good teachers who believe that the events are historical, that they actually did happen, with the addition with a little hyperbole here and there for good rhetorical flourish.

For me, personally, I would put myself in the latter camp that understands the book as historical.  You see, I just can’t get over the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:39-41.  Jesus there speaks of the preaching of Jonah and the repentance of the city of Nineveh in an as-matter-of-fact way.  Not a good thing to go doubting Jesus!

Further, although we can’t pinpoint the exact date Jonah was written, we have a ballpark idea --middle of the 8th century BC during the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel.  And that period of time would make a great deal of sense for the city of Nineveh being ripe for a stern word of hope from God, based on what we know of Assyria at the time and the kings who were on the throne at the time.  (I will speak to that specifically on Sunday).

The book of Jonah is so different from the other prophetic books in the Old Testament.  In other prophetic books, the focus is on the message of the prophet, not so much on the prophet himself.  In Jonah, his preaching takes up maybe one to two sentences.  We have his prayers, but, the book is more about the story of Jonah and God.  Surprisingly, in my estimation, the story is not primarily even about the people of Nineveh (Gentiles!), or the sailors on the ship (Gentiles!) – though they are still figure in the bigger picture.  But the key to understanding the message is found in the exposure of Jonah’s heart and attitudes – and therein is the purpose of the book found.

In the course of following Jonah, we are also confronted with some very important themes found throughout the Scriptures.  Jonah is a good primer on the Christian way of life!  As you have noticed on the artwork for this series, there are some words/themes scattered throughout the picture:  Sin, Judgment, Grace, New Life, Repentance, Hypocrisy and Love.  Each one of those themes is embedded in the story of Jonah.  And each Sunday, we will expound on each one as it relates to the text on that Sunday.

Sunday, it’s all about sin in Jonah 1:1-3.  In my estimation, the word sin has become a comic retort in our times.  One need only think of Dana Carvey and the SNL skit Church Chat with the Church Lady.  And throwing the word out there when you want to make light of behavior that’s displeasing to God.

So, you are introduced to the book.  Now we can jump right in to the first three verses on Sunday morning.  See you then!

January 22, 2013, 8:27 AM

New Sermon Series!

Beginning this Sunday, and for the subsequent six weeks after that, we will be digesting the book of Jonah.  (Kind of like what the great fish did to Jonah.)  Some of you, when you learned that I was going to be preaching from this short book, expressed surprise that I could get seven sermons out of it!  However, let me tell you, the book naturally divides into seven clearly discernible sections.  In fact, if I were to diagram the structure of the book, it would look like this:

Jonah's Commission from God

Jonah among Gentiles (On a ship)

Jonah's Prayer

Jonah's Second Commission from God

Jonah among Gentiles (In Nineveh)

Jonah's prayer

God's Response to Jonah

See there, seven easy sections arranged in a parallel fashion with the seventh and most decisive section coming at the very end when God speaks to Jonah and takes him to school.

Now, there is one other element that I would like to throw in to the mix, and I have no one to blame but myself if this becomes too much of a stretch.  I see in this little book, a veritable primer on the Christian life.  I can see seven basic themes running through the book clearly.  Check out the picture that I will be using to advertise this series:  Sin, Judgment, Grace, New Life, Repentance, Hypocrisy and Love.  Each sermon will highlight one of those themes.

One final word, about the series title, "I, Jonah."  It will become obvious right out of the starting gate that I fully intend you to see yourself in this reluctant little prophet.  He is us, and we are him.

Oh, we have much to learn from this book!  First up, Jonah 1:1-3  "No, Sir."  (How do you like that title?)


Jan. 27 Jonah 1:1-3 Jonah's Commissioning and Flight. Sin!
Feb. 3 Jonah 1:4-16 On the Ship. Judgment!
Feb. 10 Jonah 1:17-2:10 Jonah's Prayer. Grace!
Feb 17 Jonah 3:1-3a Jonah's Re-Commissioning. New Life!
Feb 24 Jonah 3b-10 In Nineveh. Repentance!
Mar. 3 Jonah 4:1-4 Jonah's Prayer. Hypocrisy!
Mar. 10 Jonah 4:5-11 Yahweh's Lesson for Jonah. Love!

January 8, 2013, 7:32 PM

This Year in Worship

Three items here tonight.  Two concerning worship; and one concerning the sermons.

First of all, I wanted to give you all a heads up about something that I want to be intentional about this year in worship.  Each Sunday I will be lifting up a couple of area churches in our prayer time, both at the earlier Prayer & Communion service, and then as well in the 11:00 service.  I want to pray especially for the pastor and the leadership of the church.  This past Sunday at the early service, we prayed for a couple Presbyterian churches close to us:  Colonial Presbyterian Church and their pastor, Brent Williams; First Presbyterian Church, Roanoke and their pastor, Bob Smith.  During the 11:00 service, we prayed for Will Robinson and Janet Chisom down the road at Salem Presbyterian.  We will continue to pray for our co-laborers in Jesus Christ.  We won't limit our prayers to Presbyterians, but will lift all who lift up the name of Jesus Christ in our Valley.

Secondly, for the Call to Worship, I want to work through the Psalter.  Of course, the first Sunday of the year, we used Psalm 1.  When I return on January 20th, we will use Psalm 2.  And so on.  Perhaps a good way to prepare your heart for worship is to read the upcoming Psalm that will call us into worship!

Now, about the sermons.  As you know, we have just come through the Advent season, and last week, opened up the year with a sermon on our necessary desire that Christ be formed in us.  That sermon will be the driving motivation behind every sermon this year.

We will be starting a seven sermon series on Jonah on January 27th.  We will follow that with ten sermons from 1 Corinthians.  After that, we will dive back in the Old Testament with ten sermons from 1st and 2nd Chronicles.  To lead us up to the end of the year, we will do ten sermons from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.

I am endeavoring to give you a good spread of the biblical canon.  I am balancing the OT and the NT.  Trying to make sure that we cover all genres in Scripture.  Trying to make sure that you hear the whole counsel of God, and not just the pet peeves and favorites of the preacher.

January 6, 2013, 5:08 PM

Sermon Text: Dirty, Rotten Hypocrites

Galatians 4:4-10, 19    Installation of Officers Sunday

Is it easy to be a disciple?  No way.

As we just saw in the introductory video clip, to be a disciple is costly.

It means giving away money.  Giving away time.  And giving away love.  And doing this all without any expectation that it will ever be returned in kind.  That it will ever be acknowledged.

It means loving your enemies, doing right by them, forgiving them as Jesus would forgive them -- even when they don't love or forgive you in return.  It means not judging others, gossiping about them or tearing them down, even though they may do all of these things to you.

It means being salt in the world.  It means being light in the world.

Being a disciple literally means being God's hands in the world.  It means being Jesus to your neighbor.

It is no coincidence that we are installing our elders and deacons toady for the coming year.  This sermon is for them -- and this sermon is for you as well.  All of the things that we expect of our leaders, are the very same things that we would need to desire for ourselves too.

My friend and colleague, Brian Robinson, pastor of Layman Church here in Roanoke, had a post on Facebook a few days ago on his thoughts about leadership and membership in the church.  he graciously allowed me to share those thoughts with you this morning.

"Volunteer Church Leaders"... [Read, members as well!]

  • Should be fairly self-sustaining.  They shouldn't create drama nor need constant attention from pastoral staff or other church members.
  • They should keep confidences and be willing to flex when faced with alternate opinions or ideas that aren't their own.  They are never dictators.
  • They must be humble and peacemaking.  When things don't go their way- which WILL happen from time-to-time- they must be peaceable and remember that the God who called them hasn't finished yet.  So they are to remain "steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord."  They model the commitment they wish to sustain within their own [committees].
  • They are faithful and can be counted on- not just when it's easy.  They are never territorial.
  • It's always about Jesus.  Just...Jesus.  And, because of that, people will be served well and Christ will be glorified.
  • They are unwilling to be defensive when criticized.  Rather, they take the honest position that they will pray concerning what has been shared with them.
  • Understand...it's not about title, but comportment and heart-attitude.  There are those who could have title, but not be leaders by virtue of maturity and commitment to these things.  There are others who have no title, but are faithful leaders that the pastors, elders and congregation take notice of, pray for, respect and look to because of what their actions say on a consistent basis.

(Dec. 30, 2012 FB Brian Robinson, Layman Church, Roanoke)

Now, as we let all of those things soak in this morning, we are confronted with the awful truth.  We don't do these things very well.  We are, when it gets right down to brass tacks, hypocrites to the core.

The calling to be a Christian believer and disciple is a high and holy calling.  The bar is high.  The bar is even more pronounced when it comes to the leaders that we choose to lead us.  Some might say that it is even impossible.

Believe me, as a pastor, I am well aware of not only my own shortcomings as a pastor and leader, but the shortcomings of New Hope.  This church.  For every person who leaves our fellowship for one reason or another, I am made painfully aware of the fact -- and sometimes in great detail -- that we haven't arrived as a holy people of God.

Coming to our text from Galatians 4 this morning, we have a similar situation.  The apostle Paul seems to be discouraged that the churches that he help give birth to were seemingly floundering and falling back into their old, comfortable ways.

The main problem in Galatia was the presence of Jewish coverts who were insisting that the Gentile converts to Christ must submit themselves to all of the Jewish customs -- things like circumcision and the purity laws.  (Some call these troublers "Judaizers").  Of course, Paul would have none of that, and a great portion of his letter to them is spent tearing down that argument as he argues that with the coming of Jesus Christ, the doors have been flung open far and wide, and that the sign of belonging to God is no longer in the ethnic rituals practiced by the nation of Israel, but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  Justification -- being made right and holy -- comes by faith.

Paul seems to be dealing here with the fallout from this discouragement from the Judaizers' demands.  Most likely, these Galatian, Gentile, new believers responded by falling back into their old ways, figuring that they just couldn't live up to the standards being pushed upon them.  And so, they did what came natural, and just slid back into doing what was comfortable.  be it idol worship.  Be it latching onto worthless, meaningless rituals or just falling back into godless behavior.

Paul cries out, "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?" (Gal. 4:8-9 ESV).

How can you desert Christ now?  Why would you return to your old ways when you were set free from those things?  Why would you give up so easily?

Paul says, "my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!" (Gal 4:19 ESV).

Paul is saying, I will not give up on you.  Jesus will not give up on you.  The work in your heart begun by the Holy Spirit will not come to naught.  It will bear fruit.  You will reach the finish line of faith.  If you belong to Christ then Christ will be formed in you.

Everything in my being will strive towards this end.  And it will happen.

That, my friends is my pastoral cry to you for the new year...and beyond.  I long that "Christ be formed in you."  I long for Christ to be formed in me.  I long for this from these leaders who will be installed today in your presence.  I long that they would pray and work for you in the same way.

Yes, we are hypocrites, all of us.  Dirty, rotten, etc. etc.  We too are like the Galatian church.  We get discouraged often because the price seems to expensive.  Too out of reach.

To boot...People let us down who shouldn't let us down.  The world and the church can be neglectful and hurtful.  We have personal failures.  Sin gets the best of us far too often.

Forget it all.  It's more easy to just be me.  Everybody and everything else, go away!  Leave me to my own ways and devices.

But, please understand, sin is not the last word in the life of the disciple or the church.

Listen to Paul's opening words once more, for they are yours:  "When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son...to redeem those who were under the law, [bound in sin and corruption] so that we might receive adoption as [children].  And because you are sons [and daughters], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"  So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal 4:4-7 ESV).

Oh, my friends.  My prayer for you (and our leaders) in 2013 is that you would not settle for business as usual.  That you would long to have Christ shape your heart.  That you would live into the new life that God has made abundantly free to you through the life of his own dear Son.

You have heard the Word of God.  Please pray that Word would take deeper root in your hearts!   Amen.

January 1, 2013, 8:56 AM

Until Christ Be Formed in You

First day of the year.  Hope it is a good one for you.  Hope that it will be one of great progress towards being the person that God intends you to be.  To that end, for both you and me, I will be organizing my preaching around the theme of becoming more Christ-like.

I share my "year verse" with you in the upcoming newsletter for January.  (I will give you a heads up by revealing it early here!)  From Galatians 4:19, the apostle Paul says, My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you.... (KJV).  That verse just won't go away.  I can't get it out of my head!  Until Jesus is formed in you, I won't rest.  Unless you become the person that you are supposed to be, I will not have fulfilled my pastoral resposibility towards you.  Wow.  That is a high bar!  Killer!  But, that is what church life is to be about.

With that in mind, that is what my preaching must aim to do: push you and provoke you to move towards a more Christ-like, Christ-honoring life.  And mind you, I am aiming for this myself!  I need it, perhaps more than you do!

And so, I introduce to you the four primary sermon series that we will encounter in 2013.  Up first, beginning January 27th, seven sermons in Jonah.  Early spring, we will move back into the New Testament with 1 Corinthians.  (How could we not?!)  After that, it is back to the Old Testament for a ten sermon series in 1 & 2 Chronicles.  You may be wondering how in the world these sorely neglected OT books will fit into the theme -- but just you wait and see!  Finally, we will end the year with the Sermon on the Mount -- most likely ten sermons there.

However, before we begin the New Year in sermons, I must, on January 6th, preach a sermon that sets it all up.  We must deal with reality.  We must uncover some unpleasant truths about ourselves.  (See the picture below if you'd rather see it than read it!)

The truth is that we are not what we should be....yet.  The truth is, as individuals and as a church, we blow it all too often.  As the sermon title for this Sunday screams, we must respond with a hushed, "Amen."  "Dirty, Rotten Hypocrites."

Ouch!  But.  We must own it.  HOWEVER...We must also realize that we are not called to stay there.  Please hear that!  We are called to ever-so-slowly move towards the Savior.  Crawl, if you can't run, towards holiness.  But, it must be something that we want and desire to do.  God is not finished with us yet!

Oy vey!

2013.  May Christ be formed in us!

December 29, 2012, 8:25 AM

Two Sermons

These two sermons go together, the one building on the other.  They should be read together.  I am grateful for the insight of Kenneth Bailey.  His work is refreshing and encouraging.  I do encourage you to read his books...you won't regret it!

Sunday, December 23, 2012.  The Christmas Story:  The Nativity:  He was Born in Manger!

Advent Sermon #4 of 6

Luke 2:1-7

Our Scripture reading this morning should be well familiar with all of us.  This is the stuff of Christmas plays.  I remember the ones we used to do when I was a kid.  Gresham Hall at Salem Presbyterian was decorated with a cardboard stable painted brown, with some straw thrown in on the floor.  There was a gaudy yellow star just off the top of the roof of the cardboard stable.  Grace Smythe made costumes for all the kids.  We had wise men, shepherds, angels, animals and of course, the Holy family complete with the little doll that filled in for baby Jesus.  I was never big enough to play Joseph in those days!

Here's the way the story goes.  Joseph and Mary are headed for Bethlehem because they are heading back to Joseph's ancestral home to be registered so they could pay their taxes.  Mary, by this time, is very great with child.  And, the way the story is usually told, they arrived in Bethlehem late on a cold winter's night.  There is no place for the family to lodge for the night.  No one seems to have had pity on a poor woman about to give birth.  Joseph knocked on the door of the nearest inn, and a mean innkeeper told them to go away, there was no room at the inn!  No vacancy.  But then the innkeeper shrugs and points to the stable out back and says they can have that for the night.  Nice guy!

So, Mary gives birth to the baby Jesus in a cold barn in the company of a few cows, not in the creature comforts of a warm home.

That's the story.  It is the fuel of countless Christmas church plays.  The Eastern Orthodox have a little different twist on the Joseph & Mary story.  That story goes that just as the Holy couple was arriving in Bethlehem, they had to find a cave for Mary to give birth.  As Joseph leaves his wife to find a midwife, Mary gives birth by herself.  Joseph arrives back with a midwife only to find mother and child doing just fine.  The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem tracks closely with this tradition as the church is built over a cave/grotto where it is said that Jesus was born on that first Christmas morning.

Ken Bailey, a Presbyterian author who lived in Israel for sixty years as a child, as a teacher, preacher and missionary, has a different take on the traditional Christmas story.  He points out a number of places where the story has been obscured by tradition.

First off, he notes that Joseph was a descendant of King David.  Luke points this out quite well.  Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.... (Lk. 2:4 ESV).  Bailey says that all Joseph had to do was say "I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi." and they would have probably rolled out the red carpet for this son of David.

He also points out Elizabeth and Zechariah were not far off and would have been a possible place to stay, since it appears that Mary and Joseph had been in Bethlehem for a while, not, as tradition has it, that it happened just as they got to town that first Christmas night.

Bailey makes the case that in Middle Eastern culture; a pregnant woman would get first-class treatment.  That it would be a mortal shame and blight for a pregnant woman to be treated with the kind of indifference conjured up in the traditional telling of the story.

Perhaps the most eye-opening claim that Bailey makes is when he suggests that there was no inn in the story.  In older translations, the Greek term kataluma is translated here as "inn."  But, he argues that a better translation would be quite literally, “space."  The newer revision of the NIV recognizes this better translation of the word by translating it as "guest room."

What it means is that Joseph and Mary came and stayed not in an inn or a stable out back of the inn -- but with relatives in a poor, modest two room house.  The guest room in the house (the kataluma) was taken by another relative, and so Mary had to give birth in the main room, which was adjacent to the place where they brought the animals in at night.  The manger would have been right in the warm, main area of the dwelling, with many relatives attending to Mary and her needs.  The animals would have been right there as well!

Bailey's aim in clearing up the misconceptions is not merely to pooh-pooh on anyone's Christmas play.  He says that by getting this right, it brings out the meaning and significance of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.

Jesus, the son of David, the Messiah to come, the Lord of lords and King of kings, was born in an unlikely setting -- a modest peasant's two room home -- in a way that any other, ordinary poor Hebrew boy would come into the world.  He was cradled in the manger there in the living room of that home.

The birth of Jesus in humble circumstances is not a whole lot different from the story of King David's rise to prominence right there in Bethlehem.  I think Luke intends his telling the story of Nativity to point up the similarity with David's coming and rise.

In 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel is sorely disappointed with King Saul.  God told the prophet to go to Bethlehem:

Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." (1 Sam. 16:1 ESV).  And, "Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do.  And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you." (1 Sam. 16:3 ESV).

At supper with Jesse, Samuel begins to meet his sons, and it begins with the oldest son coming in before the prophet:

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the LORD's anointed is before him."  But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.  For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."  Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, "Neither has the LORD chosen this one." (1 Sam. 16:6-8 ESV).

And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, "The LORD has not chosen these." (1 Sam. 16:10 ESV).

Then Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here."  And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, "Arise, anoint him, for this is he." (1 Sam. 16:11-12 ESV).

David was the youngest and the smallest and he was the one with the dirty job of shepherding for his father.  This choice was unconventional, to say the least.  Kings aren’t cut from that kind of cloth!

But David became a great King.  He was a man after God’s own heart.  He was a King for the rich and powerful; but he was also the King of the lowly and meek.

The Messiah wasn’t supposed to come into the world the way Jesus did, either.  If you look through the OT descriptions of the Messiah to come, you won’t find any hint that he would come the way that he did.

The key thought in our passage today comes in the last line:  Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger…. (Lk. 2:7 ESV).  Jesus was cradled in a common manger.

When we speak of Jesus coming, we say that God condescended to us by becoming one of us.  But he did so much more, he came all the way down to the lowly cattle feeding trough.  Next week, we will see how important this is as we are introduced to the shepherds.  The lowest and most ill thought of in that culture.  Not long after the visit of the shepherds, the Magi – representing the powerful -- appear on the scene paying homage to the King of kings.

Often during the holiday season, we here the same old battles about whether it should be “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”  But perhaps we ought to come up with something completely different, and perhaps a little more spot on with the season.  May I suggest that we greet one another with this:

Greeting:  The Savior is born.

Response:  He is born in a manger.

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

Monday, December 24, 2012.  Christmas Eve --The Christmas Story:  The Shepherds

Advent Sermon #5 of 6

Luke 2:8-20

Yesterday, my message was centered around the Nativity of Jesus.  The gist of that message was that Jesus was born in humble circumstances, just as any other poor, peasant Hebrew boy may have come into the world.  In a little two room dwelling.  Wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in a manger – a feeding trough -- right there in the family living room.  A common Messiah given for all people.  A coming King who can command the powerful and empathize with the weak.

The way Jesus entered the world helps you to understand the story of the shepherds from Luke 2 tonight.  Immediately following the account of Jesus birth, it goes like this, and in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.... (Luke 2:8-9 ESV).

The shepherds will be the very first group of people to hear the news about the birth of this Savior.  From the perspective of the world, a very odd group of people to share this unbelievable news.

Shepherds were lowly class of people.  They were mostly poor.  They were  mostly uneducated.  In fact, rabbinic traditions label them as unclean.  In fact, “five lists of ‘proscribed trades’ are recorded in rabbinic literature and shepherds appear in three out of the five.” (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p.35 quoted from Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus.)

And yet, the angels came first to this group outcasts!

...And they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:9-11 ESV).

Now, I must tell you, that these shepherds were wise to be fearful of the appearance of a heavenly messenger.  But, the news from the angel must have unsettled them even more.  The Savior born?  The Messiah?  THE Son of David that has been promised for so long?  Happening tonight?  And you are telling us?

From the shepherds point of view, if the child really was the Messiah, his parents would surely  reject the rag-tag shepherds when they came to the door.  How could they expect a welcome?

But listen again what the angel said, "Fear not, ...I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  This will be good news for ALL people.  Rich and poor alike.

The next words from the angel was given especially for these fearfully skeptical shepherds:  "And this will be a sign for you [this is your sign, you shepherds!]: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

The babe is of poor means, just like you.  You will find him in an ordinary, peasant home, such as theirs.  You will find him wrapped just like what peasants and you shepherds do with your newly born children.  You will find him in a manger!  He is your Savior and King, too.  For all people!

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:12-14 ESV).

Perhaps they would not be chased out.  Perhaps they might find an open door.  Perhaps this was their sign, a sign for lowly shepherds!  This sounds too good to be true.  But, just maybe....

Mary, in her song, did say that God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate….(Luke 1:51-52 ESV).

So...the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." (Luke 2:15 ESV).

..[The shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  And all who heard it wondered [marveled!  astonished!] at what the shepherds told them....And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:16-18, 20 ESV).

*There are four things about the shepherds' visit to the manger that I want to leave you with this Christmas Eve:  (*From Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.)

1. The shepherds were welcome at the manger.

2. The unclean shepherds were judged to be clean.

3. The outcast shepherds became honored guests.

4. The song of the angels was sung to the simplest of all.  The shepherds.

My friends, what can this mean for you tonight?  The shepherds' story is your story.  The shepherds' story is my story.  The baby cradled in that manger was the bearer of good news of great joy...for all the people.

God had come wrapped in human flesh.

The Son of David to rule all nations.

The King not only after God's heart; but the King with God's heart.

The beginning of the reign that would bring everlasting righteousness over evil and sin.

The Kingdom of God come upon the world that would show the way to true peace.

That baby born in the manger in Bethlehem was your sign as well.   Amen.

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