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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Confessions of a Failed Evangelical

December 30, 2012

I begin with the premise that there is urgency in the task of evangelism.  I can think of no worse condition for a human being than to be alienated from God, and I believe all people are sinners and sin cuts us off from God completely.  The solution for sin, which make relationship with God impossible, is the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Many will reduce the gospel to Jesus dying on the cross.  I see his work of salvation in his life and words, and in his death and resurrection.  Without the resurrection, the death on the cross is empty.

But he did rise.  He did conquer the greatest enemies – Satan, sin, and death.  To be protected from the enemy, to be free from the damning effects of sin, and to be assured that we will be resurrected and have eternal life, we need Jesus.  He is God in the flesh, by him all that we know was created, he is the eternal one, and he is the way, the truth, and the life.  All people need Jesus.

I offer this simple definition.  Evangelism is helping people meet Jesus as Savior and Lord.  In upcoming weeks, I will say more about why as we come to be saved from sin and by Jesus, it is just as important that we come to follow Jesus as master and Lord.  Evangelism is helping people come to Jesus. 

It is the work of Christianity.  Paul writes in 2nd Timothy, “In the presence of … Christ Jesus, … and in view of his coming and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you; proclaim the message; be persistent, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (from v. 1, 2).  Why did he think this so important?  He writes in chapter 3,

in the last days distressing times will come.2For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,3inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good,4treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,5holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power (v.1b-5).

And in chapter 4,

3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.


Who are the people who not only don’t have a relationship with God, but don’t even want to?  Who are those who don’t believe there is a God at all?  Who are they that are hostile to Christians and Christianity?  I don’t know who they are in your life.  In my life, they are uncles and cousins, people I have loved my entire life.  They are some of my closest high school and college friends.  They are neighbors, the parents of my son’s friends.  These people I care about deeply are the ones who are going through their lives with no relationship with God.  They don’t know the love of Jesus.  They don’t know they can turn to him for purpose in their lives.  They don’t know he rejoices when they become parents or when they graduate.  They don’t realize they have a heavenly Father who delights in them.  They don’t know that when life gets really hard they can turn to him.

On top of that, like me, they are mortals.  Like every person, these that I care about are one day closer to their own deaths each time they wake up in the morning.  Unless there is some evangelistic intervention, they will go into eternity without a relationship with God.  They will go to judgment day without Jesus covering their sins.  They will face judgment and then a godless eternity.  That is what is at stake. 

I grew up in a Baptist church that taught that people who did not know Jesus were lost and hell-bound. From what I have said, it’s clear I still believe this and it leads to the question: how do people go from being lost to being saved?  This is a New Testament issue. 

From Romans 10, beginning in vers 13.

13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”14But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”16But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”17So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.


And also of Matthew 28:18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


These passages make it clear and the church in which I was raised reinforced this message. We must go out and share the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.

To be Christian is to be evangelistic. I don't believe there are non-evangelical Christians. However, I do see a few problems with the evangelism teaching I received.

First, we were told what to do, but not taught how to do it. Go share Jesus. OK, how do I do it? If technique was taught, I sure did not hear it. We were sent off on a mission but not equipped for that mission. In my life, trying to live out the lessons I received at church, I found myself in conversations about faith with people outside the umbrella of church, and often they were far more prepared for those conversations than me.

A second problem with the teaching I received on evangelism is I did not see it modeled in the church. The people who taught the lessons were, at least when I saw them, with other Christians. Go share Jesus with unbelievers. But I only ever saw the adults who gave that instruction when they were with other Christians.  I did not really see effective evangelism.  I had no model to copy.

No practical equipping. No good modeling. A third problem is one I have discovered more recently. What we were taught did not exactly match up with what the New Testament emphasizes.  I have heard many pastors definitively state that nothing is more important than getting people out of Hell and into Heaven.  This idea has a common-sense feel about it.  If Hell is unending torment, then it is the worst possible conclusion for any soul.  No matter what else happens in someone’s life, it is crucial that we Christians do whatever we can to keep them out of Hell.

Though this seems to make sense, it is a flawed approach.  Recall the passage we began with, 2 Timothy 4.  This chapter says nothing about Hell.  Neither do Romans 10 or Matthew 28, passages cited earlier.  In Romans evangelism is urged because unbelievers need prayer but don’t know God, so cannot pray.  In Matthew the motivation is obedience.  We go because Jesus is sending us.  In 2nd Timothy, we are urged to evangelize because people have “itching ears” (v3) full of false teaching.  They cannot know God because their minds are clouded with false doctrines.

To help people pray; to obey Jesus; to help people meet the real God and move away from false teachings: these are some New Testament reasons for evangelism.  Going to Heaven and staying out of Hell is part of evangelism, but I was taught that it is 95% of evangelism.  The Bible does support such an unbalanced approach.

So with no real equipping, no role models, and a skewed, limited view of what it is to share Jesus, I entered college, then seminary, then ministry and adulthood.  I was in a terrible place.  I did not know how to do evangelism.  I did not know fully what evangelism is.  Yet as the pastor, I was supposed to motivate the church to do evangelism and to show them how!

I won’t bore you with all my mistakes, just two of the glaring ones.  The first involves one of my best high school friends.  In our first year out of college, we were both back in Roanoke, Virginia where we had gone to high school. 

My friend wasn’t really a church-guy.  He would come once in a while, but walking with Jesus was not a driving force in his life.  I am not sure what role Jesus played for him back then, and 20 years later, I am still unsure about that.

Here’s what I did with my friend.  I went over to his house to play video-game football.  It was the 1992 version of Madden or something that preceded Madden.  Anyway, we’re playing the video game and arguing about the NFL like we always did.  All of sudden, I said, “Hey, I have to talk to you about something.”  And I whipped a gospel tract out of my back pocket and took him through it, step-by-step.  This conversation had the potential for unbelievable awkwardness because I didn’t prep him at all for what was coming and it was way out of the ordinairy.

What prevented it from falling apart completely is how easy-going my friend his.  He patiently listened, nodded his head in a show of interest.  When I was done I gave him the tract and he read it again without my commentary.  He did not ask any questions.  I did not push him to respond in one way or another.  And within a few minutes we were back to the game.

I can definitely say I clearly presented the gospel to my friend.  There is no mistaking that the tract which I read to him, with explanation, and then he read again, called for the reader (him) to make the decision to pray to receive Christ.  Some of you might think me a stumbling goof for forcing such a formulaic approach into a situation where it did not fit.  Others may commend me for using the tract but think me a coward for not pressing my friend to respond on the spot.

            All I can conclude about the episode is that he heard the gospel.  Since then he has heard me preach sermons.  We are still best of friends.  I still do not know where he stands with God. 

            Here is a second example from my own life, one that happened in completely different circumstances with completely different people.  I was a pastor, 30 years old.  I was rooming with some guys in Alexandria, Virginia, one a former college roommate and a really dedicated Christ follower.  Another of our college friends came to visit us.  Of course Alexandria, – that’s the Washington DC area.  Our friend was coming to participate in the national Gay pride march.  That he stayed with us while coming for that event was momentous.  He was coming out of the closet to me and my roommate.

            When we had all been in college together, we did not know he was gay.  We played rugby together.  We did 3 and 4-mile runs every morning together.  We were all in the bass section of the touring choir together.  I thought I really knew this guy well. 

            So there we all are at my apartment, reunited after being out of college 8 years, and our friend is explaining his sexuality and why homosexuality for him was affirming and wonderful.  As he talked I listened, and when he stopped, I said, “All those things you’re saying, I get that from Jesus.”  What I said was totally true – completely true.  The timing of it was terrible.  This guy needed to know his Christian friends wouldn’t judge him.  He needed to know we would love him.  What I communicated was hey, you’re OK if you follow Jesus, like I do. 

My intent was for my friend to know the Lord.  But my words did not communicate my intent because I had not earned the right to speak my piece.  Not with him anyway.  He would not have been able to hear me talk about Jesus unless he knew I was a safe person.  He was sharing something totally new in our friendship.  In other contexts, he had suffered from cruel words spoken by Christians.  He needed to know his Christian friends would love him.  By going with Jesus language so abruptly and bluntly, I lost the opportunity to actually share Jesus with my friend.   I did not say the wrong thing.  I said the right thing at the wrong time. 

I still see that friend once in a while.  Whenever I do, I try to be a good listener.  But something changed that day that we talked.  It was already changing as he was growing into honesty about his orientation.  But the change became stark when he looked to me for safety and friendship, and I said, “Jesus.”  I could see it in his eyes immediately.  When I said “Jesus,” he did not hear the name of one who loved him unconditionally.  He heard me judging him.  I needed to show Jesus-love first.  Had I done that, I think I would have had a better chance at sharing Jesus’ name and the salvation Jesus offers. 

These evangelistic attempts are not failures because of the response of my two friends.  Success or failure in evangelism is not determined by whether or not the unbeliever becomes a Christ-follower.  We have no control over that.  The Holy Spirit ultimately must speak and the Spirit speaks on the Spirit’s time table, not ours.  When the Spirit speaks, and I personally believe the Holy Spirit speaks to all people many times in their lives, then the person has to respond in faith or respond by rejecting God and rejecting faith.  We cannot control the Holy Spirit’s initiative or the person’s response.

My two examples are failures because I was not artful or tactful or patient in setting the circumstances.  In my eagerness to do my evangelistic duty, I failed to see how complicated this entire business is.  With my video-football playing buddy, I needed to press our conversations to where they were about matters that go deeper than who will win, the Redskins or the Cowboys.  I needed to get him talking about things that matter at the heart level.  Then, when he talked, I needed to listen.

My friend from college was already at the heart level.  He was already talking.  I needed to listen.  I needed to spend a lot of time listening compassionately and prayerfully. 

In both cases, listening was the key.  This will be a central teaching in this series on evangelism.  We might even call it “listening evangelism.”  Of course it cannot be only listening.  We aren’t therapists.  We are disciples of Jesus Christ and we want to help our unchurched, unbelieving friends to become not only saved, but passionately devoted followers of Jesus.  We most certainly need to speak the Gospel.  But not first.  Speaking cannot be where we start because our friends won’t hear a thing we say if we aren’t safe and trustworthy. 

The unbelieving world expects the church to be self-righteous and judgmental.  We have to shock the world with our love.   Paul says in 2nd Timothy 4:2, “be persistent … with utmost patience in teaching.”  This is not soft evangelism.  This is evangelism that I think will actually gain a hearing.  We don’t just want to tell people that Jesus saves.  We want them to listen when we say Jesus saves.  I have too many stories of my own failure to wait for the other to be listening before I began talking. 

I invite you on a journey into the world of listening evangelism.  We’ll look into scripture – the stories of Jesus and the first evangelists in the early church.  We’ll hear from each other.  And together, we will go into the world with the good news that before God Satan is powerless, death is defeated, and sin is covered.  It’s all because of Jesus.  We will share that message and we will do it slowly, patiently, listening, so that when we share our friends will hear. 



Thursday, December 27, 2012


December 3, 2009

The book of Job came from a distinct theological worldview. To oversimplify it, if one does what is right, God will bless that person. If one does what is wrong, God will inflict suffering on him. Job suffered immeasurably. Therefore, Job must have sinned horribly.
Job’s friends along with the young critic Elihu insist on this theological worldview. Job, also a product of this worldview, cannot accept it. Whatever he may have done wrong, he knows the suffering imposed mercilessly upon him is not his fault. By insisting that what everyone has known to be true isn’t true, Job stumbles into a radical paradigm shift. It seems to him that God in fact does not punish the evildoers and reward the righteous. God is arbitrary and Job is suffering needlessly.
In the end, Job is vindicated. God does not agree with the numerous accusations Job hurled heavenward. God does not affirm what Job has said. God affirms that Job’s theological orientation was correct. Job remained pointed toward God. In that he wa sin the right. Furthermore, God does crush the presumption of the theology piously voiced by Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
And strangely, three are never heard from the final chapter. In Job 42, we see no mention of Satan. Elihu has nothing left to say and is not even so much as an afterthought. And, Job’s wife does not reappear. Curious.
Even more unexpected is the rush of characters we have not met to this point. Is it appropriate to be introducing new people, 41½ chapters into a 42-chapter book?
“All his brothers, sisters, and former acquaintances came to his house and dined with him in his house. They offered him sympathy and comfort concerning all the adversity the LORD had brought on him. Each one gave him a qesitah, and a gold earring” (42:11).

Where were the relatives when Job’s life fell to pieces? On the one hand, they didn’t judge him theologically the way his friends and Elihu did. Moreover, they didn’t discourage him the way his wife did. Nor did they doubt him as Satan had. On the other hand, they didn’t help him until now. The financial gifts (a qesitah is a monetary unit of unknown value) would secure his future. But why didn’t this extended family provide a defense against the onslaught of theological harangues from the three and young Elihu?
I think the reason is they couldn’t. These family and friend who obviously loved Job and had no heart to accuse him even if he had turned out to be in sin weren’t ready to question the theological assumptions that ruled their world. The theology of retribution (diving rewards for righteous behavior, divine damnation for sinful behavior) was the rule of faith. The book of Job was a minority voice, an alternative theological vision for the faith community circa 5th century BCE.
The paradigm shift is artistically displayed in the final lines where we learn that Job fathers 10 more children. Already this book has stepped way outside of what had been established and accepted lines. Already this book has declared that everything we assumed about God isn’t all there is to know about Him. God exceeds our knowledge and all of us – the criminal and the saint, the scholar and the barroom brawler, the street urchin and the king are small in God’s presence. That’s understating it. We are miniscule in God’s presence.
Still, God notices us and takes interest in us. And, God loves us (though it would be stretching credulity to claim that Job asserts God’s compassionate love for us). Reading Job alongside Song of Songs, we know God is a passionate lover. Reading both books alongside Genesis 1-2, we know humankind is the apple of God’s eye. Indirectly, Job 38-41 does affirm this.
The final step out of convention’s established walls comes in Job 42:14-15. Job’s three daughters are awarded an inheritance along with his seven sons. That did not happen in the ancient world. Furthermore, of Job’s 10 children, the only ones the narrator bothered to name were the daughters. There’s no reason given for not naming the sons. The final word is a whimsical, quizzical way of reminding the reader, if the message hasn’t already gotten through, question everything. Theological rules won’t contain God. Assumed truths cannot be trusted. To know God, one must commit to holiness (virtuous living) and fallback on prayer when holiness fails. And it is more important that the prayer be embarrassingly honest than properly orthodox. It is more important that prayer from the heart than from the rule book.
I believe that is the final word in Job.

Matthew 13 - the Sower Parable

The Foolish, Extravagant Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)
I talked with someone from another church this week. His church was having VBS, and Tuesday night was “decision night.” The volunteer teachers were to strongly encourage the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders to consider asking Jesus into their hearts so that they might be saved.
It troubled me. Not the desire to introduce young kids to Jesus – I am all for that. What I am opposed to is evangelism that sounds like fire insurance. Do you know if you died tonight, whether you would go to heaven or hell? How many times did Jesus take that approach? He was set on guiding people into the kingdom of Heaven. But rarely did he present it as crossing a line or making a step. For Jesus salvation was discipleship – living all the time as a God follower. Jesus did not set it in terms of Heaven or Hell so much as he invited people to faith and to life; those who rejected his invitation were blind or lost.
To force older elementary students into a contrived situation in which they opt for Heaven or Hell doesn’t feel right. More importantly, from my reading, such an approach is not Biblical. And this is true for adults as well as kids. Evangelism – bringing people to Jesus, helping them grow in faith, equipping them to do ministry in the world in His name – is crucial. Any life of faith that ignores evangelism is severely spiritually impoverished. But, reducing evangelism to hell avoidance is just as impoverished.
This summer we’ve spent time in Old Testament passages – Psalm 8, Genesis 22, and Zechariah 9. We’ve looked at life when life is spent following Christ. Last week, we stepped out of that series to hear the Mission Serve testimonies, which included a teenager announcing her decision to give her life to Him. It was thrilling because it’s clearly something God brought about.
Evangelism must be initiated by God, and it must be about God. Evangelism leading someone to a a fork in the road with one turn leading to flames and the other to eternal bliss. Evangelism is itself a road, a road where Jesus is walking with us.
I said last week I would put the sermon I had written down in essay form on my blog. I ended up not doing that. After learning about the high pressure approach at my friend’s church during VBS, I decided to preach last week’s message this morning. Next week, we’ll return to our OT series on the life of a God follower.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”
What a fool, this farmer who is out, randomly planting, sowing seed just anywhere. At our house, my wife, a gardener, has various 50lb bags - manure, top soil, compost, mulch. At her command, I get my workout for the day by hauling these various chemical combinations around the yard, and dumping the proper amounts into holes she has told me to dig. Months later, I get rewarded – fresh beets and tomatoes on my salad; blackberry jam; fresh basil; homemade blueberry sauce over ice cream. Candy’s careful planning and endless attention, and a little of my labor, result in homegrown food at our house.
We wouldn’t have it if we just walked through the yard tossing seeds everywhere. Nothing would grow in the kids’ sandbox. Or if seeds feel on the paved driveway, they would be bird food, and nothing more. If something landed in my neighbor’s yard and happened to take root and grow, it would become my neighbor’s cucumber plant. A gardener randomly tossing seeds and hoping for the best - what a silly story Jesus has shared.
Jesus didn’t come to talk about farming or gardening. Jesus came, he said, “to seek out and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). To proclaim the good news of the kingdom of Heaven, available to us in Him; proclamation – this is why Jesus came (Mark 1:38).
So what, in his parable about a farmer who sows seed haphazardly, do we learn about Jesus’ purpose of spreading good news about salvation? The point is not farming. The point is planting. What is God planting?
It says in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The sower in Jesus’ story is God. Through the word, through Jesus, through the church, God is getting the message out to the world that all who confess faith in Christ have life and have it abundantly. All who walk the Jesus way and live the “with-God” life, have joy and are in the right. All who turn to Jesus and confess their sins are forgiven and are adopted as sons and daughters of God.
God gets this message out over and over so that the people will have multiple opportunities to respond in faith. He speaks through evangelists like Billy Graham. God spreads the word of salvation through popular books like The Purpose Driven Life. Through music and art the message is spread. Through unchurched people glancing at a Gideon-placed Bible in a hospital room, the gospel is proclaimed. Through celebrities like Super Bowl-winning football coach Tony Dungy expressing their faith, the message goes out. Through church members sharing their faith with neighbors, the word goes forth. Through God coming to earth in the form of a man, Jesus, salvation is made known. Through the Holy Spirit nudging people’s hearts, it spreads. The sower repeatedly spreads his seed everywhere because most people are not in good soil most of the time.
This parable of Jesus points to the generosity of God. God is the sower who goes out to sow and will continue going out, seeking the one lost lamb even when 99 are safe (Luke 15:1-7). Jesus will reach out to those excluded from worship like shepherds and leather workers. Rules makers say these folks have jobs that make them unclean. Jesus invites them.
Jesus befriends tax collectors and prostitutes. Religious leaders insist they are cut off from God because of their sins. Jesus welcomes them.
Jesus will heal the blind and the disfigured and the demon possessed. Scribes say God has cursed them with suffering because of past transgressions. Jesus brings compassion and frees them from their maladies so nothing will keep them from coming into a right relationship with God.
Who is the most outcast, uncool, unpopular, unwanted person you can think of? Jesus loves him and goes to great extent to reach him.
Think of trampled soil on the path, or the rock-filled soil where nothing can take root, or the soil overgrown with weeds. Think of someone you know who would represent these types of soils, sure to undermine any planting effort. The sower, year after year, spread his seed in these bad places, and God over and over brings his love and offers His salvation to the unreceptive, the unconvinced, and even those who are downright hostile to him. This story of Jesus is about a sower who keeps spreading love; a father who treats his returning prodigal son like a prince. The story is about God who relentlessly pursues us.
Jesus follows up, explaining his parable to his disciples. From Matthew 13:
10Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, … (v.16) blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. 18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
The sower, our extravagantly generous and recklessly loving God, pours his seed, the Word, on us that we might hear, and believe, and be saved. God reaches out to us, but that does not mean we receive Him and become disciples.
There is an enemy, Jesus says, who snatches away what was sown. Jesus calls him the evil one. Satan is real, as are his minions. He desires to be worshiped and he desires to hurt God. So he goes after God’s children – all who put their trust in Jesus. If Satan can sow discord into the lives of people who are trying to follow Jesus and thus throw them off track, he wins. Jesus represents the threat posed by Satan with seeds that fall on the trampled path.
There is also shallow faith, represented by seeds sown in rocky ground. I remember a guy I knew who went to an old fashioned revival. He received Christ. His wife, who had been going to church alone for years, was thrilled. Then, he lost his job. He abandoned his faith as quickly as he had claimed it. He had that teary-eyed “come-to-Jesus” experience, but there was no depth. He never examined the scriptures or developed a prayer life or served in ministry or worshiped in all seasons. He thought it was baptism water and good feelings. When hard times came, he fell away, as Jesus says in the parable. I have sadly known many with similar stories.
The path is the enemy; the rocky soil is unrooted, shallow faith. What about the thorns and weeds? Seeds that fall among thorns are like the word of God coming to a person who has a lot going on. He’s filled up at work; he’s concerned about his money; his personal life is exceedingly busy. God and faith and Jesus just make up one area of his life and not the most important area. He hears the Gospel and likes what it says. Who wouldn’t want the salvation God offers in Jesus? But, he’s not going to give anything up to live the life of a devoted Christ follower.
Our greatest passion must be for Jesus. The Bible says so. So do the great thinkers in the history of our faith. Our most complete devotion is to Jesus. In the parable, the weeds are the things in life that choke out a person who is trying to be a “part time” Christian.
In life we spend time in each of these bad soils.
We get tempted by Satan to chase after other pursuits and leave Jesus at home, and we only break out our faith once in a while. Temptation has threatened all who have turned to Jesus.
And, Most of us have had a time where our faith didn’t run very deep. Dig deep and you find other forces, not Jesus, motivating us; driving us. It seems like every year, I see deeper inside my own heart and find places I am holding on to, places I have not turned over to Jesus’ lordship.
Finally most of us get distracted by the cares of the world, the weeds and thorns. Business, the pursuit of success, materialism, - we relegate Jesus to the backburner. Church people who sing the songs and bow for the prayers are at times living in each of the soils where the word fails to produce true faith.
But in His mad crazy amazing love, God keeps sending His love and sending His truth and pouring the seed of His word into us. God never gives up; rather God continuously reaches for us.
All the while, God is pruning; cutting back the weeds. God is working the soil of our hearts, getting the rocks out, dealing with us at our deepest psychological, emotional, and spiritual levels. Finally, God is clearing out the clutter and setting up protection from the evil one.
Eventually, through our willingness and cooperation, and more through God’s tireless efforts, we become good soil. When the seeds of the Kingdom fall into a heart that is good soil, there is life change, transformation. Heaven comes yes, but more importantly, the person who is good soil begins living in the Kingdom as he begins follow Jesus. Jesus says, “This is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23).
You may have throw your hands in the air and said, “Life is too much! I am not perfect. I cannot be who God wants me to be. I give up on faith.” That’s OK. Our generous God is not giving up on you. In fact, God keeps working the soil and planting the seed, tending to your heart and offering you the bread of Heaven, the body of Christ. He keeps on keeping on in terms of reaching out to us in love.
Our response is to lay everything we have before Him – all the good, the bad, all experiences and thoughts, all our relationships, everything. We present it all as we present ourselves to Jesus. We let Him take it from there.
Come to the sower, the God who loves us abundantly. Come and bow before Him in faith. Receive forgiveness and stand as a child of God.
The parable and the subsequent explanation end in the same way – in the good soil, God produces fruit. The planting God is also a producing God. What will God produce in your life? Come to Him today to find out.

A Preacher's Frustration

Our associate pastor preached on Christmas Eve and she did a really fantastic job.  She dealt with many of the issues on people's minds.  She gave sufficient "good news" (translate: something to feel good, happy about).  But she did not ignore the reality that our country has dealt with tragedy over the past 10 days (school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut).  I was proud of her.  And I was relieved because I had grown tired of my own preaching this Advent.

In past years, from November through year's end has found me asking associate pastors to take the pulpit because of my own fatigue.  This year was different.  I was energized by my studied in Job and I was fired up to study and then preach the Old Testament prophets (this year's lectionary Advent readings).  I really wanted to preach. 

My failure was twofold.  I failed to account for how much our church needed to smile.  The church needed to be prompted to praise and rejoicing.  And I didn't do my part as preacher and pastor in facilitating this.  My second failure was a failure of creativity.  And this is where my frustration comes in.

I don't for one second regret 8 weeks in Job.  People who rarely comment on sermons contacted me to tell me what a blessing it was.  However, Job is full of dark themes.  So too are are prophets.  Zephaniah prophesied against a backdrop of indifference and apostasy.  Micah faced a populace with rampant injustice.  And darkness covered over us as we gathered for worship each Sunday.  The presidential race was impossibly negative and it left many with a feeling of dissatisfaction.  War rages in Syria.  Our troops linger on in Afghanistan.  And then there was the Sandy Hook Horror.

In short, much darkness covered the people in the pews.  And the scriptures dealt with dark themes.  To be honest as a pastor, true to the needs of the people and true to the themes of scripture, required dealing in dark themes.  This was true in spite of the cheer and joy of Christmas.  My utter failure of creativity was my inability to deal with the dark themes and at the same time lead the church to praise and joy.  Our associate pastor accomplished this on Christmas Eve, but I struggled with it throughout Advent.

I am frustrated with myself.  And frustrated with the times.  I am just a little frustrated with listeners who require such a homiletic effort.  But that last frustration is unfair.  Preaching is hard work and for me to think it should come easy is to attempt to rob preaching of its dignity and importance. 

So where do I go?  First, back to prayer and I have begun work on this.  I need to reconnect with God.  I go to study.  I don't say "go back" to study because study is one thing I have done pretty consistently.  Study has almost, for me, become an idol.  I have done too much to the neglect of other necessary steps in preaching (exegesis of text, exegesis of congregation being two).  And finally, I go relationships.  I must refocus on relationships in the church and relationships with people who are not in ours or in any church.  This is especially true considering our upcoming emphasis on evangelism.

All of this said, there is no quick or easy answer.  If there were, it wouldn't frustrating!  But, as I said, preaching is dignified, important, and hard.  Success only comes with God's help.  Through training and discipline, one can become an accomplished orator, of course.  But preaching is not the same thing as being good at public speaking.  Preaching is bring people and God (God in the word, and God the Spirit) together in a way that they (the people) cannot possibly avoid in the encounter.  When defined that way, preaching is extremely hard.  It is work I feel called to and work I feel privileged to do.  Even when it is frustrating.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

God Saves - Christmas Eve, 2012

This was never preached.  Our associate pastor preached Christmas Eve and did a wonderful job.  In a post coming up, I will talk more about how difficult it has been to preach this Christmas-Advent of 2012.

Monday, December 24, 2012

            We have journeyed through lent with Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Malachi, Zephaniah, and Micah as our guides.  Jeremiah showed that God is judge, but not just for condemnation.  Malachi spoke of God refining those who will come in repentance, and Jesus is the primary means by which this purification comes about.  In Zephaniah, we see God as victorious Lord and King.  And Micah gives us word of the protecting God who watches over us.

            It is time to move from the prophets to the Gospel – and we need good news as much as we ever have.  We are little more than a week removed from the horrific school-shooting in Connecticut.  Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee who was a pastor before he became a politician said that the tragedy should not surprise us because we have kept God out of our schools and government and military.  By keeping God out, we invite Hell to break loose.

            Huckabee’s comment might be seen as a crass move; he used the senseless awful death to promote his political agenda that marries a certain type of Christian expression with a certain type of political expression.  I think Huckabee is probably sincere in his desire to see a ‘Christianizing’ or he might say a ‘re-Christianizing’ of public institutions in America.  While his statements in my view were poorly timed and as a pastor he should have taken a more caring approach, I don’t question his sincerity.

            I just don’t see things as he does.  But, I completely agree with one comment he made although I probably mean something different than what he intended.  Huckabee said, “We don’t have a crime problem, a gun problem, or even a violence problem.  What we have is a sin problem.” 

I heard left-leaning political opinions react the shooting with the opposite position of Huckabee, declaring this tragedy was exactly the result of a gun problem.  Lack of gun control was the cause.  I don’t agree that what happened in Connecticut was a result of poor gun control and I am not getting into gun control politics this evening.  I merely point it out to show that both sides of the political aisle weighed in the wake of the tragedy when in fact prayer and caring were needed more than politicizing.

Back to Huckabee though, I agree 100% with his “we have a sin problem” line.  I suspect when he said “we,” he meant “America.”  When I say we have a sin problem, I mean all of humanity. 

The Connecticut school shooting makes this glaringly obvious.  So too does a story that was in the Raleigh News and Observer the same day as the reporting on the Connecticut tragedy.  A homeless man was found dead – murdered and left in a trash can.  Five people were arrested for murder but none were named in the paper because they are each minors.  Four are 15 and one is 13.  When I was that age I was afraid of sassing my parents or disrespecting a teacher.  These are children, and they’re under arrest for murder. 

The story is local, not national news, but it is just as tragic.  So too is the fighting in Syria and the Gaza strip – two separate wars, and both awful.  That children suffer from hunger and malnutrition is just as bad.  We could go on and on.  Yes, we need to tonight, this very moment, move from the prophets, and they also contain gospel, to the four gospels.  Since it is Christmas Eve, we specifically must find comfort, hope, truth – all of in Luke chapter 2. 

There we meet those who are near the bottom of the social ladder – the shepherds.  Their work made them ceremonially unclean.  By doing the work that put bread in their mouths – work with sheep, work needed by everyone in society – they were disqualified from worship.  And no one in the temple missed them or questioned how the system had become so unfair and unjust that human beings were seen as unworthy of coming before God for prayer and worship.

The shepherds are spending the night outside, watching over the sheep, doing their thing.  They did this in the rain.  They did it on cold nights.  They are out on this night, and heavenly beings come calling.  My nights are spent in an extremely comfortable bed.  I have done my share of camping.  I know what wonders and sometimes deceptions the wilderness at night can bring, but I am softened suburbanite who would have trouble with the toughness of these shepherds.  They handled much that would either scare me or kill me.

But Luke is quite clear in his telling of their reaction to the angels.  The glory of the Lord shone on them and they were terrified.  I don’t know how you act when fear becomes the dominant and only discernible feeling in you.  I lose my ability to think clearly.  These hardened shepherds did not have their wits.  They trembled violently and were out of control.  But the angel told them he was bringing good news of great joy for all people. 

Then the angel said something they would have probably found surprising.  “To you is born this day a savior in the city of David who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  There was plenty of messiah talk.  It means ‘anointed one.’  Many would-be messiahs had been crucified by Rome in the years leading up to this night.  Messiah-talk was not uncommon, nor was it uncommon to associate the Messiah with David.

What was not so common was to call this Messiah “the Lord.”  The first century expectation was that the Christ, a translation that means Messiah, Lord’s anointed, would be set apart by God.  They did not think the Messiah would come from God or would be God.  They weren’t thinking they would be calling this one “the Lord.”  Nor is it clear what is meant by ‘Savior.’

But, when we read the story of Christ’s birth with the thoughts of all Jesus did and does, then we realize Luke 2:11 is right at the center of this story.  The idea of the birth of a Savior, the Savior is at the heart of Christmas and is the hope for all people.  For left-leaning political voices who want guns banned, Jesus is savior.  For right-leaning politicians who demand that God – their version of God – be allowed back in school, Jesus is savior.  For the victims and victims’ families in Connecticut, Jesus is savior.  For the five young teenagers who face murder charges, Jesus is savior.

Turn in Luke, just two chapters over to Luke 4.  He begins his public ministry saying “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Of course he is quoting the prophet Isaiah, words expected to come true when the Messiah arrived.  He follows up this audacious prophecy with the simple announcement that the day Isaiah anticipated has arrived with his arrival.

The angel told the shepherds a Savior had been born.  In Jesus we see what kind of salvation the Savior brings:  … release to those in bondage; … recovery to those who hurt and suffer; … freedom from oppression.

A passage that accompanies Luke 2 in the lectionary readings for Christmas Eve is from Paul’s letter to Titus, Titus chapter 2.  Verse 11 says the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all.  Continuing into Titus 3, “He saved us … according to his mercy.  … He poured out [His] Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

Through the forgiveness of sin and the giving of mercy without end, through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and through word we have in the Gospel, God has extended the gift of eternal salvation to all of us.  All people who will respond to his gift of grace are saved.

What does this mean in the wake of tragic events like the ones we have mentioned?  Those of us who have become followers of the Savior come alongside the sufferers in Connecticut.  We are a hand to hold and a shoulder to cry on.  We visit and pray, and we do this for the victims and for the wounded family members of the killer.  They are horrified at an entirely different level.  We Christ-followers, filled with the Spirit and filled with grace, come alongside the families of these teens who are likely facing prison time for committing the ultimate of crimes – murder. 

Sin is still in the world, cooperating with Satan to wreak havoc on humankind.  Mike Huckabee is 100% correct.  Our primary problem is a sin problem.  What it means that the Savior has come is that His followers, the people who make up His church, are in the world to show the way to Him.  And we make special time and effort to do this in times of tragedy.

It means also that we have good news when we go through difficulty.  I wonder, who is going through their first Christmas after the divorce?  Bringing up that issue is not a statement of judgment on your particularly, if you are in that situation.  Divorce is one result of sin in the world. 

Another sign of sin is death.   Who is going through their first Christmas after the funeral, after the beloved family member has died?  Christmas this year is different than it has been in a long time.  Or Christmas is hard because a relationship with a son or with a brother is in crisis.  Many who are already in pain feel their hurt magnified by the Christmas joy everyone else seems to feel.  How can everyone be so happy when I hurt so much?

The angel who terrified and then amazed the shepherds is here for you with a message of good news about great joy.  Jesus is Savior and He came for you.  His Spirit comforts.  He promises that death is not the end.  If sin is destroying your life, he reminds that He forgives all sin and His grace is sufficient for you.  It does not mean the hurt evaporates magically.  Wounds take time to heal and some don’t clear up until we get to that transformed place, the new Heaven and Earth that come together and there are no more tears.  Some pain is not assuaged until then.

But, we have the promise of Heaven and the hope of Jesus’ return.  We can count on those things.  We can also count on his Holy Spirit carrying us through the hardest of times.  He will work through the church.  And this night, He works through Christmas Eve worship where we sing the familiar songs and hear the story that even non-church goers know a bit. 

It is the story of a savior.  It is a very specific story about something very specific that God does.  God accomplishes this in a particular way.  We don’t proclaim a kind of general, nondescript good news.  God saves in coming to us, God in the flesh, Jesus.  His birth is the birth of the Savior.  If this Christmas is hard for you, you can count on this.  God saves.  If this Christmas is awesome for you and you are full of joy, then you have a story to share.  God saves. 

May we, as we worship recognizes our need for salvation.  And then, may we know with certainty that our need is met in Jesus, the God who saves.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Hope from the Most Unlikely Places - Advent 4

Sunday, December 23, 2012

            “O Bethlehem … from you shall come forth … one who is to rule in Israel.  … He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.

            … He shall be great to the ends of the earth

            … He shall be one of peace” (5:2, 4, 5a).

            Jesus came from Bethlehem.  “ … one who is to rule …”.  Is Jesus the king?  In frustratingly incomplete accounts in the four gospels, Roman governor Pilate is struggling with whether he should release Jesus or condemn him to death for rebellion against Rome.  Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you king.”  Jesus is silent.  Jesus, bloody, small and beaten, stands with composure that Pilate, the image of Roman strength, cannot muster.  Jesus talks about his kingdom and says it is not from this world and not one Pilate can possibly understand (v.36). 

Is Jesus the king who does what the prophet Micah says the coming one will do?  His birth so terrified Herod he tried to kill Jesus when he was just a baby.  His claims were substantial enough that Pilate did decide to crucify him.  If the New Testament and the early church are true, then he did rise from the dead – resurrected – and in a transformed body, one equipped for eternal life. 

He is “one to rule in Israel,” and He shall “stand and feed his flock,” according to the prophet.  Mary believed it when she was pregnant with him.  She sings of God, “He has scattered the proud … and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 2:51b, 53a).  The Gospels tell of Jesus miraculously feeding 5000 with a boy’s lunch.  Throughout history his church has overseen the work of feeding the hungry.  At HillSong, we feed the hungry in North Carolina, in Ethiopia, and in other places. 

Micah said he is “one to rule,” and he shall “stand and feed.”  Jesus did these things and his church does these things in his name.

Micah said this one “shall be great to the ends of the earth.”  Even as Christianity declines in Europe, the region where it enjoyed its greatest political strength, and even as Christianity has an uncertain future in the United States, in Africa, Brazil, China, South Korea, and other places, millions are turning to faith in Jesus.  They praise His name.  They proclaim him to be Lord of Lords and King of Kings.  His name shall be “great to the ends of the earth.”

We have journeyed with Old Testament prophets this Advent.  We begin with Jeremiah who spoke God’s word in the midst of the time in history when God’s people in Judah fell into exile.  Then Malachi brought the word of God from that time after exile, a disillusioned time when God’s people seemed weak and at the mercy of foreign powers.  In spite of their losses, they sought God and sought to reclaim and re-establish their identity as God’s people.  The we went a couple of generations before Jeremiah to Zephaniah who spoke the word of the Lord on the eve of exile when disaster was imminent but the people, caught up in their own ways to the neglect of God’s ways, could not see it.  Now today, we step back a few more generations to Micah who speaks to a conflict-filled populace, a people who do not seek God or his ways.

In this, I have tried to show how Jesus fits the role of the one the prophets said God would send.  Each prophet spoke words that were true in their day and for God’s people in subsequent generations.  They weren’t predicting Jesus as precisely as some Christian writers suppose.  They were inspired to speak God’s truth.  Methodist pastor and author Charles Aaron writes, “New Testament authors look to Micah, not because he had a crystal ball to predict the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but because the prophets had insight into the ways of God” (Preaching Hosea, Amos, and Micah, p.117). 

The ways of God; perhaps the greatest question we can ask in our lives once we decide we want to be Christians and be Christ-followers is are we seeking to live in the ways of God?  The problem these prophets dealt with in the midst of the chosen people of God was that the general populace and especially the leaders in the temple and in the king’s palace were not seeking the way of God.  In fact they brazenly rejected the ways of God thinking they were safe standing on their nationality and theologically unique station in history.  This was true in the generations leading up the exile to Babylon, it was true on the eve of exile, during the exile, and afterward.

We are not in exile, but as a nation and as Christian people we feel the sting going away from God to our own ways.  As we move to Christmas to celebrate the birth of the Savior – Jesus – I am struck by three things.

First, a black shadow rising from the unspeakable tragedy at the elementary school in Connecticut hangs over us this Christmas.  It is sad, sad, sad.  I don’t lessen my belief that Jesus is the king who rules in the majesty of God, whose name is great to the ends of the earth, who feeds his flock, and who is the one who brings peace.  But as my heart goes out to families who have lost their precious children and to a community that can no longer feel safe putting their little ones on the school bus, a seemingly normal, benign activity, I wonder if my feelings about Jesus would be as strong if I lived there?  He is the only who can bring hope, but are those who mourn able to receive it?

Second, I am struck by the conflict among us that rises when we should focus all our energies on prayer, support, encouragement, love, and caring presence.  One side yells that without God in schools we can expect this kind of man-made disaster.  The other side yells that if we had better gun control laws we could have prevented this disaster.  And I have one friend who is very intelligent, conscientious person, and he has used this sad event to bring to light the normalcy of killing in other parts of the world.  Even as our president mourns the loss of innocent children in Connecticut, and I do not doubt the sincerity of the president’s emotion, my friend observes that our government sends drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The drone missiles are indiscriminant and school children have died.

Is this the way of God?  It is just as sad when a Pakistani first grader dies because an American-sent drone was off target as when Connecticut first graders die due to a deranged gunman.  We cry harder for the Connecticut first grader.  God weeps for both. 

I am struck by the events of last week.  I am struck by how this sadness heightens conflicts among us.  And third, I am struck by the Gospel and the truth that even in times that our tragic and bewildering, there truly is good news.  More shockingly, this good news comes from the most unlikely of places.

I said a moment ago that the prophets do not speak words that directly predict the birth and life of Jesus.  Rather, the prophets are attuned to God’s ways and when we read them, we should read with humble, vulnerable minds, ready to accept their critique of us and ready to be changed by the force of God in the prophets’ words.  One of the most outstanding features of God’s ways is to work in the world through people who do not appear powerful in the world.

God conquered Pharaoh and established his people through Moses, a speaker that stuttered.  God defeated the Philistine giant, Goliath, through a boy, David, who was so small he could not even wear the king’s armor.  God established his church, which now worships him from all over the world, through a tiny minority of people from within a nation – Israel – that itself was a persecuted weak minority within the Roman Empire.  Do you ever perceive yourself to be small, powerless?  If so, it is through you that God will change history because that’s God’s way.

In the case of Micah, preaching God’s ways in the face of a world that seemed indifferent and even in open rebellion, one word of prophecy turned out to be a direct link to Jesus.  “You, O Bethlehem, … from you shall come … one of peace” (5:2a, 2c, 5a).  From time to time, God’s hovering Spirit, influencing world events in big-picture way, moves in and God’s hand directs specific events.  I don’t know why God doesn’t move in specifically and prevent tragedies.  I am sorry I don’t know.  I feel terrible as a pastor that I cannot say why God doesn’t stop gunmen in schools.  I just don’t know.

But around 4BC, God moved Caesar to call for a census.  Joseph from Bethlehem had to return there to be counted and taxed by Rome.  He took his young pregnant wife, Mary.  And Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

In Micah’s day everything happened in Jerusalem.  But he prophesied that Jerusalem, Zion, the city of David, would be a “heap of ruins,” (3:12b).  Seven hundred years later, Bethlehem was like every other Jewish village, crushed under the merciless heel of Rome.  Today, Bethlehem is surrounded by an oppressive wall, 24 feet high.  That wall is there to keep Palestinians in and Jews out.  Today, Bethlehem enjoys over 50% unemployment.  Those who do work have menial, low-paying jobs in Israel.  Those who do not are fertile fields, recruited to be suicide bombers for the PLO and other groups.  Today Bethlehem is the epicenter of the unending war that plagues the Middle East.

And yet, we believe with all that is in us that Bethlehem is where peace comes from.  Jesus comes from Bethlehem and he is the hope for the world. 

I spent more time this week walking and praying than I have in a long time.  I thought about all the tears of our nation and of those in Connecticut.  I thought of how it must evoke memories of Aurora, Colorado, Virginia Tech, and Columbine.  And others.  I thought about places where death has become so normal that events like school shootings are not that significant.  And yet, as I walked and prayed, a more powerful thought overcame these others and that is the thought of God.  I thought of who God is and what God had done in Jesus. 

We’ve recited Micah’s prophesy.  In Jesus God comes out of nowhere – Bethlehem.  In Jesus rules, provides, and brings peace.  Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s love.  As the darkness and the thoughts of God’s action in the form of Jesus competed for dominance in my mind, something came to light.  The most inspiring stories are born in the darkest of times.  The teacher gave her life for her students.  Celebrities and strangers, in the week after, reached out in generous and loving ways to comfort the victims’ families.  The president, and I say this not disregarding legitimate critiques of him, showed his heart.  Why does such inspiration come from the midst of such pain?  Because that’s who God is.

I fully believe the hope that inexplicably rises from Bethlehem will visit all who wail in Connecticut and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Bethlehem of the 21st century other places of great pain.  God comforts those who mourn.  That is God is.

More to our context, I believe God will visit where we mourn.  Maybe this Christmas is hard because you lost someone this year.  Maybe a relationship in your life isn’t going well.  Maybe your life is not where you want it to be.  Maybe you’ve given lip service to faith and the truths of Christianity, but you cannot see how it helps in the particular difficulties in your life.  Maybe you did not expect any help from a prophet who spoke and wrote in the 7th century BC.

But she who is in labor has brought for a son who is the prince of peace, who is God in the flesh, and who is not the Savior of the world, but the Savior who is your Savior.  When we give our lives to Him we enter into a real relationship with a living, present God. 

We wouldn’t expect our individual stories to turn around dramatically, but the God we celebrate in our Christmas songs comes to us in unpredicted forms and wows us in ways we did not expect.  When he comes, and He will, we have hope.  Whatever you might be going through right now, God sees you, knows you, and loves you.  There is hope because of who God is.  Micah knew this, even in his dark prophecies.  The people in Connecticut are discovering this even their grief.  And we will discover it too as worship, celebrate, and remember throughout this Christmas season.