Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What I would have preached on Feb.15th: What Would Jesus Say About the Prosperity Gospel?

What Would Jesus Say About the Prosperity Gospel?

Matthew 6:19-24

I recently read an article in Time Magazine entitled, "Does God Want You to be Rich?" The article begins by telling the story of a guy named George Adams, who lost his job in Ohio. He immediately moved his family to Houston Texas where he attended Joel Osteen's church Lakewood. He said that Osteen boasted his confidence and he went out and got a job selling cars. He sold his first vehicle in four days. He now says he is on his way to a six figure income and when he achieves it, he is going to build his dream house on 25 acres of land. He believes he owes all this to God because God promised prosperity to the person who believes. He concludes,

I'm dreaming big--because all of heaven is dreaming big," Adams continues. "Jesus died for our sins. That was the best gift God could give us," he says. "But we have something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained, God wants to support us. It's Joel Osteen's ministry that told me. Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything less for his children?"

The Time Magazine Article goes on to say that Prosperity Theology places an emphasis on wanting people to be happy and wealthy. 31% of Christians believe that if you give money, God will give you money in return and 17% of Christians claimed they were followers of Prosperity Theology.

Of the four largest churches in America, three of them would claim this type of theology. These churches are pastured by Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and TD Jakes. The article went on to mention several pastors who preach that God wants to give people wealth and prosperity. For example, Joyce Meyer is quoted in this article as saying, "Who would want to get in on something where you're miserable, poor, broke, and ugly, and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven. I believe God wants to give you nice things."

The question I want to pose today is this: What would Jesus say about the Prosperity Gospel. When taking a broad sweep of the gospels teaching, we see that Jesus told his followers to pick up their cross and follow him. He told the rich young ruler to sell all his processions and follow him. He also tells his followers that God will provide all they need if they will trust him.
Today I want to look at one text in particular from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 6 of Matthew, Jesus has warned his listeners against showing their piety by publicly displaying their giving, their prayers, and their fasting. Jesus then says,

19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, [a] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, [b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

When we read this piece of Jesus' sermon in context, verses 19-21 can be seen as a conclusion to the previous material in which he says that his followers should store up treasures in heaven by pleasing God, not treasures on earth by showing off to other people. It also provides a transition to the material that follows. Jesus tells his listeners to store up treasures in heaven where nothing can destroy it. He then says that where your treasure is, your heart will be there as well.

Verses 22 and 23 seem to be awkward at first, but in a 1st century context, flow nicely. Jesus says the eyes are the lamp of the body. In the first century it was believed that the eyes could show what was in a person's heart. If there was light in the eyes, it meant that good was in the heart. Darkness meant there was evil in the heart. (Evil Eyes) When we put these two sections together, Jesus seems to be suggesting that when a person seeks treasures on earth, it causes their heart to be evil. Contrast this with a passage later on in this chapter when Jesus says to seek God's kingdom first and then God will provide. It is as if Jesus is saying that when a person seeks treasures in this life, it will consume them, causing their heart to be darkened, but when a person seeks God's kingdom, then, in John Wesley's words, "will soon come to seek this only."

Jesus then summarizes the importance of seeking after God in verse 24. He concludes that it is impossible to serve both God and wealth. The Greek word for wealth is "mammon" which really means wealth. It is only used in two places in the Bible, this passage and in the story of the unjust steward in Luke 16.

Jesus on Prosperity

From this passage, I think Jesus would say a couple of things about "The Prosperity Gospel." First, I think Jesus may agree fundamentally with the theology that actually drives Prosperity Gospel. Fundamentally, I those who believe and preach prosperity believe that God's salvation in Jesus is about more than dying and going to heaven. They believe that Jesus came to bring God's kingdom to this world and wants people to experience his love, grace, and blessing now.
In Matthew 6, Jesus tells his followers to store up treasures in heaven, not on earth, which seems to imply that God wants us to think nothing about this world and all about heaven. I agree with NT Wright, who suggests that Jesus is talking about setting out mindset on God's kingdom, which Jesus believed had come. God was doing things here and now and Jesus wanted his followers to place their value in them now. Jesus goes on to say later in this chapter that if people will focus on God's kingdom, they will have all things given to them as well. In other words, when Jesus' followers focus on God and his kingdom, God will provide for them.

I believe Jesus would commend those who preach prosperity gospel for calling people to trust that God will provide for our needs that God will forgive us, heal us, and transform us.

Secondly, while I believe God will provide for our needs, Jesus would never suggest that our material processions are evidence of our spiritual maturity. In other words, I never see Jesus tell folks that is they will follow Jesus; they will become rich or have a nice home, a good job, and a healthy family.

Notice that Jesus moves from placing our treasures in things of God to examining what is in our hearts by the light of our eyes. In other words, the things our eyes look at reveal our true heart. I believe Jesus would say that God is not fooled by outward appearances, but looks at our hearts. I believe he would warn us not to be too caught up in how much money people make, asks us to look at the heart of the person.

Finally, I believe Jesus would say that the greatest problem with prosperity gospel theology is that it makes money and possessions our focus rather than God. Jesus warns his listeners that they cannot serve God and mammon; they will love one and hate the other. If someone's primary goal is to be wealthy and they believe God will enable that, and then they are really using God as a means to worship money. Jesus calls us to worship God regardless of the benefits we may get from it.

Cost-Analysis Discipleship

I am planning to loose some serious weight in the next several months after Caleb is born, but I often struggle with loosing weight because you have to eat healthy and exercise. For some people, this is easy, but with diet and exercise there are serious compromises that must be made.

For example, the benefit of exercising is that I will feel better, I can loose weight, and hopefully live longer. However, in order to exercise I will have to give us some things like sleep, which I hate doing. The same is true for eating healthy. While it will bring some good benefits, I cannot have fries and Buffalo wings every time I eat.

Just so we can all be honest with ourselves, I think we sometimes have similar issues with our spiritual lives as the prosperity gospel folks. If you are anything like me, you at times have played Cost- Analysis Discipleship. What I mean by this is that we weight the benefits of following Jesus verses the benefits of not. For example, sometimes we follow God because we think it will somehow make our better in the long run or sometimes will accept Jesus to keep us from going to hell.

I want to suggest that Jesus is telling us in this passage that we ought to love and worship God for God's sake. If we allow God to be our treasure and worship him regardless of what may happen in the future, I believe we can trust him to care for us. I know that oftentimes we do choose God for some benefit, but I believe Jesus is asking his followers to move to a deeper place and to allow God to be our treasure.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

To be or not to Be: Circumcision

Tomorrow is a big day for the Davis'. Caleb goes to the doctor for his circumcision. We were asked if we wanted to have him circumcised, but we didn't realize that people didn't have babies circumcised. Statistics say that over half of baby boys are circumcised. In the north, it is about 50/50, but in the south, about 90%-95% are circumcised.

The history of circumcision goes at least back to the bible when God told Abraham to be circumcised as a way to distinguishing himself from those around him as being followers of Yahweh. He was commanded to pass this down from generation to generations. Moses was almost killed by God in Exodus, but was spared when his wife circumcised him.

In the New Testament, it appears that Jewish Christians continued to be circumcised, but Paul asked Gentile converts not to be because they received God's grace by faith, not by following the Jewish law. James affirms this in Acts 15. It seems that baptism is the way a Christian is distinguished and marked by God these days.

You may wonder why we are circumcised in the US, when we are Gentile Christians. Apparently in the 18th century Christians in the US began to be circumcised as a way to prevent sexual sin. There have been some recent studies that indicate that circumcision does prevent infection and cancer, however the evidence is still inconclusive.

So, why circumcision? It comes down to this: It still seems to be the normal practice and it does seem to prevent some types of infection. Since in the south, most boys have it done, it seems that our son should be no different. Since the evidence is so inconclusive and the Bible does not mandate it, majority rules.

Notes for the week of 2/16-2/20

Seize the Day

This last week, my first son was born on Friday, February 13th @11:19am. He weighed eight pounds, three ounces. As I write this, he has just finished eating for like the eighth time today, he has had numerous dirty dippers and he keeps his mom and dad up at all hours of the night. Yet, I sit here thinking what a special baby he is.

In the days leading up to his birth, I believe God has been telling me over and over, "Seize the Day" or 'Enjoy Every Moment." I am like a lot of people in that I am always looking for the next thing. The whole time Melanie was pregnant I was looking ahead to the birth of Caleb. Now I am looking forward to his first crawl, first smile, first word, the first time he walks, etc. I believe God's message to me is to slow day and enjoy each moment. My mom and day keep telling me that one day I will look back and miss the diaper changing and the night time crying. So, I am going to soak in these moments and seize the day.

I hope this is helpful not just for new parents, but for all of us in life. We will all only be in this place in life once, so we should cherish each moment God gives us.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Notes for the week of 2/9-2/13 Exercise in Being Thankful

In staff meeting Tuesday, Mary Grey, our children’s director led the devotional. She asked us to fill up a page of things that we are thankful for as a way of centering ourselves. Today, I decided to take some time and write out the things I am thankful for.

1. My heart’s desire was to be a husband and a father. God has answered my first desire and is about 1 week away from answering the second one
2. My wife Melanie has been more than just an answer to prayer. She is my best friend and partner in life. Things are not always easy as we all know, but it is so great being with someone who loves you unconditionally.
3. Caleb is not even born yet and he has changed our lives already. I am thankful for him already and I am excited to meet him.
4. I have the best parents in the world. If I can be half the dad to Caleb as my dad is to me, Caleb will be well off. My mom is such a hard worker and loves Jason and me so much. She would do anything for her boys.
5. I was able to move back to Chattanooga and be close to my parents and my brother and his family. It has also allowed me to reconect with some other friends from childhood.
6. My brother and I get to eat lunch together and we have a good relationship.
7. My grandparents were all wonderful people. While they have passed on, their influence on me will always be strong.
8. Lila, Ana, and Elise, my nieces. Lila changed our whole family dynamics when she was born and it has been SO awesome watching her grow up. I am excited to see the twins grow us as well. ( I am tearing up at this point)
9. God put me in the right church at the right time. First-Centenary was a great fit for me and has been life changing. I met my wife at FCUMC and have wonderful friends.
10. The Vine has been so amazing over the past 6 years and has done so much better than I could have ever imagined. God has blown my mind by helping it to be where it is.
11. I work with a great staff, from the pastors I serve with to the support staff and directors. We all work so well together and I am blessed everyday when I come to work. I also have a great staff in the Vine who works so hard even though I feel they are underpaid.
12. I will always be thankful for the time I spent in Cynthiana. In some ways it was the hardest time of my life and in other ways, it was one of the most blessed times. I loved youth ministry, but more than that, I loved the families I got to know. They will always be a part of my life.
13. I am blessed to be able to meet with two small groups that really help me in my daily walk and life. Thanks guys
14. I have worked with four wonderful senior pastors (two as a youth director and two at FCUMC) who are actually quite different. I have learned a lot from them.
15. Unlike so many people, I love what I do for a living. I am so blown away that I get to be a pastor and preach sermons for a living. WOW!
16. My wife and I were able to buy a house. It is not huge, but it is a home that we can call our own when so many people cannot buy a house.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Sermon 2/1/09 What Would Jesus Say Part 4 "About Fundamentalism"

What Would Jesus Say about Fundamentalism?

Matthew 5:13-20

I think most people would agree that when we hear about Christian fundamentalism, we often have images of angry street preachers or glimpses of Jerry Falwell on the television. Fundamentalism has become those people who scream and yell, condemning people to hell for not believing as they do. They attribute all the words problems to God’s judgment upon the earth because of humanity’s sinfulness.

Interestingly, this was not how fundamentalism got its beginnings. As Christian Liberalism began to spread to America from Europe, theologians began to question some of the important beliefs in the bible. Higher Criticism began to question how the bible was written and put together. It questioned whether or not Moses wrote the first five books of the bible. For some Christians, this was seen as a very dangerous thing because it was questioning the very authority of the bible that they believed in for finding faith. In 1895, a group gathered in Niagara Falls, New York and grouped together 5 fundamental beliefs that they felt had to be believed by Christians.

1. Inerrancy of Scripture
2. The Divinity of Jesus and the Virgin Birth of Jesus
3. Jesus death on the cross as a substitute for our sins
4. The physical resurrection of Jesus
5. The immanent return of Jesus

The aim of this group was to say that while we may argue over some less important issues of the faith; these five things are what have to be believed by Christians.

To be honest, I would adhere is some way to all five of the points mentioned above. I have no real issue with them. I may have some explaining to do on point one, but for the most part, I am in agreement. However, fundamentalism began to move from just the five points listed above and slowly added more “fundamentals.”

In the 1960’s, the fundamentalist camp felt that evolution was the issue that most challenged the Inerrancy of the Bible so they vigorously attacked school systems how taught Evolution. Evolution became a test to measure if someone is a real Christian. After time, fundamentalist saw themselves as being the true interpreters of the bible. This has been the case so much so for some, that they have seen themselves as carrying out divine judgment by bombing abortion clinics and protesting at the funerals of our military people when they have been killed in combat.

Westboro Baptist Church says this on their website, “Since 1955, Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has taken forth the precious from the vile, and is therefore as the mouth of God (Jer. 15:19).”

The question I want to begin with today is, “What would Jesus say about fundamentalism? Specifically, I want to talk about “Christian Fundamentalism.”

There were movements in Jesus’ day that we may associate with “fundamentalists” called “zealots.” This group believed much like the Pharisees, and may have even included some, that Israel should go back to living out their faith in God, be faithful to the law. Unlike the Pharisees, they went one step further in that they thought the only way to do this was to remove Rome from power by force. Several groups tried to do this, but failed. These groups led to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

In the Sermon on the Mount, after Jesus shares the beatitudes, he says,
13 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus begins by saying that we are the salt of the earth. He says that if the salt looses its saltiness, then it is cannot be made salty again and it is good for nothing except to be trampled on by men. The he says we are to be the light of the world. Instead of covering up our lamp, we are to put it onto a stand and let it shine before men.

I think Jesus used salt and light as examples because these two things were essential to life for those who were listening. Jesus was telling the disciples that they were vitally important to the lives of those around them. The disciples were to be “perseveres of life” for the people they came into contact with. If they were to loose their saltiness, they would no longer be able to provide life. If they were to hide their light, then they could not longer show the way that leads to life. The disciples were to allow others to see their good works and praise God.

Jesus tells his listeners that he has come to fulfill the law and that they too are to be doers of the law. He then says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

New Fundamentals of the Faith

I believe that Jesus, if he were speaking to fundamentals, he suggest the following

(1) Take the Bible more seriously than you take yourself: Jesus told those listeners that “not one letter will be dropped from the law or the prophets.” He also was complimentary of all those who lived out the teachings of the bible and who taught the bible.

Fundamentalism claims to take the bible seriously. They claim that every word in the bible in “inerrant.” In other words, there are no mistakes in the bible and every word is given by divine inspiration. So obviously, they do not have an issue taking the bible seriously, but I think Jesus would say that they take themselves was too seriously.

Jesus warns against acting like the bible scholars of his day. They had set themselves up as the religious authority’s policy and judging how people should behave. They used the bible like a briefcase to beat people over the head with it. They believed they were the main authority of interpreting it, thus giving themselves a false sense of importance.

I think Jesus would tell modern day fundamentalist that while he agreed that the Bible was important, they are not the only people who can correctly read it and interpret it. The bible should not be their weapon for battle, but a means for helping people fall in love with God.

(2) Right Belief Does Not Always Equal Right Behavior: Sadly we see too many people on television or maybe in churches on Sunday that say all the right words when it comes to affirming the doctrines of the church, but completely ignore the message of the person we hold these beliefs about. I am always blown away by the quote from Ghandi, “I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

In our passage this morning, Jesus asks his followers to be the salt of the earth and a city on a hill. He says that we can do this by letting our good works be seen. Notice what he doesn’t say. He does not say be the salt of the earth and a light by getting all your theology correct and then telling people they are wrong for not agreeing with you. He says that the way to be salt and light is by doing good deeds.

I think Jesus would tell fundamentalist that while they may have some theology correct, the best way they can influence culture is by showing love to others. Instead of doing things that will cause others to run from Jesus, we are to do things that draw others close to Jesus.

I want to end by suggesting a broader definition of “fundamentalism.” In this sermon thus far, I have suggested that Fundamentalist are folks that embrace only the fundamentals of the faith. Recently though, I have discovered that people on the other side of the theological spectrum can be just as fundamental in what they believe. For example, some people believe so strongly in the Pro Homosexual argument that if a person questions their stance, they are immediately judgmental and therefore, not followers of Jesus.

I want to suggest that the real issue with fundamentalism on both side of theological debate is that our strong belief often gets in the way of being the salt and the light to the people around us. We take our own opinions and positions and elevate them up so much that they place barriers around us, causing the gospel of Jesus to be missed. Even when some listen to us, the gospel is more about an agenda than it is about the good news of salvation in Jesus for the world. It becomes about being pro gay or ant gay, prochoice or prolife, evolution or creation. Instead the good news should be about making know God’s love and salvation in Jesus Christ.

Sermon 1/25/09 What Would Jesus Say Part 3 : " About Being Skeptical"

What Would Jesus Say About Being Skeptical?

Matthew 22:29-32

After listening to the video, a couple of things stood out to me. I noticed that one person called Obama a “conservative” and another person called him a “liberal.” This makes sense to me because I have often found that someone or something is a liberal or conservative based on perspective. I have been called by some people a liberal and other people would call me a conservative. The truth is that I am conservative about some things and liberal about others.
I also noticed that one interviewer said that a conservative is someone who wants to conserve something while a liberal is someone who wants to change things. When we talked about conservatives in Christian circles, they tend to be the folks who want to hold to the interpretations of the Bible that have been passed down from generation to generation. Liberals on the other hand are folks that want to push certain teachings and explore new meanings.
If these two things are the meaning behind conservatives and liberals, we will meet the most conservative group of people in Jesus’ day, namely the Sadducees. Jesus does not have much contact with them in the Gospels and they tend to only show on Jesus’ radar when he is in Jerusalem.

History does not tell us too much about the Sadducees. We have limited information about what the sect of Judaism was all about. According to Josephus, as early Jewish historian, they were part of the religious ruling class, mainly located in Jerusalem. They would have been the keepers of the temple life. They tended to be conservative, because they were in charge and had no reason to change the status quo. They only followed that first five books of the Old Testament.

Jesus spends very little time in Jerusalem, so he does not really run into them much. When he does finally meet them, they ask him to solve a riddle of sorts,

23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 24 "Teacher," they said, "Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?"29 Jesus replied, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob' [b]? He is not the God of the dead but of the living."

Matthew gives us a clue to one of their theological beliefs in verse 23 when he says they did not believe in the ressurection. This was different from the belief of the Pharisees which we looked at last week. We can also learn from history that they believed God would not save Israel from the Romans, but that the people needed to learn how to get by the best they could. They tended to believe that the people would ultimately decide Israel’s fate.

As I mentioned earlier, being conservative or liberal does depend on perspective. From a first century perspective, the Sadducees were conservative because they wanted to conserve the status quo. They wanted to keep temple life the way it was. They were against say the prophetic writings and other teachings were as important as the Pentateuch. In the same way, there are conservatives in the church who do not want the church to change at all.

At the same time, from a 21st century perspective, their theology looks kind of liberal. As Christians, we believe in the ressurection of Jesus, which has been taught by the church for 2000 years. If someone questions this belief, we call them a liberal. Likewise, to question the Bible in any part today would be more liberal, sense that would be to question the tradition teachings of the church.

If I had to put a word to the subject Jesus is addressing, I would say it is “skepticism.” Just like last week, Jesus was addressing Pharisees, which tend to be more liberal for the 1st century world and more conservative today, about hypocrisy. Both liberals and conservatives can be hypocritical and skeptical.

The Sadducees use a story based off a law in the Old Testament that says when the husband of a woman dies before she has had children, she is to be given to the person’s brother so that the dead brother will still have an heir to pass along his inheritance. In a sense, this law is about leaving a legacy on this earth.

The Sadducees ask the question, “What happens if this woman has seven husbands, who will she be married to in God’s kingdom after the ressurection? I am sure this question stumped many people in Jesus’ day. I can see how this story might stump us even today. When we talked about people in heaven, we usually think they are rejoined to their family. If they have multiple spouses, who will they be married to in heaven?

After Jesus tells them that they mess up because they do not know the Bible or know about the power of God, he tells them that heaven will not be like this life. People will not be married, but they will be life angles. He then defends the position of the ressurection using the first five books of the Bible. He says that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus points out that he is “presently” their God. That while they have died, he is their God know because they are alive.
Skepticism of the Bible

I want to go back and look at verse 29. Jesus first tells the Sadducees that they are in error because they do not know the Scriptures. The Sadducees were skeptical of the teaching about ressurection partly because they refused to be open to the idea even when they saw it in the pages of the Bible.

Today there is a philosophy that says everything is false unless it can be proven. Sadly we have all too often adopted this means of interpreting the Bible. We approach the Bible as if it is a hypothesis to be proven or disproven rather than a story to be ready that still has meaning for our lives today.

In the 18th century Bible Scholars began looking in the Bible to figure out who wrote which books and what dates these books were written. Initially I think this was a good thing, but it went from this to determining which material was original which ones were not. Then we began examining stories in the bible to see if they matched up with what we know about science and suddenly the Bible lost some of its meaning.

I think Jesus would begin to approach this skepticism by saying that we are mistreating the Bible. Instead of judging the Bible for whether or not it is true by our standards, we ought to allow the Bible to judge us by its standards.

Skepticism of God

Jesus also in verse 29 says that the Sadducees did not believe in the power of God. There whole story rest upon interpreting God on the basis of human possibilities. The Sadducees understood how things worked in the world they lived in. They knew what was humanly possible and what wasn’t, but they failed to grasp what things were possible through God.
Someone asked me one time how I could believe all the miracle stories in the Bible. They wondered how I could think that Jesus walked on water or took fives loaves of bread and fed 5,000 people. They asked me how Jesus could have really healed someone who was blind or paralyzed. They wonder how a person could be died and then come back to life. The answer for me is simple. If I believe that God exists and created this world from nothing, it is not hard to believe he could raise the dead. If he raised Jesus to life after he died, it is not too much of a stretch to believe that God could heal the sick and walk on water. I believe God is all powerful.

God’s Power in Our Own Life

The problem I run into does not believe in the Bible or in the miracle stories. I believe in both those things. My problem is believing that God is all powerful over my own life. While I sometimes accuse my liberal friends of being too skeptical about the Bible and such, I fail to believe he can and will work in my life.After I found out Melanie was pregnant I was so worried about her health and the baby’s health. I remember sitting in my office praying for God to please let everything be OK. God reminded me of a time in my life when I would totally trust God to work things out in my life. Those were the days. I then tried to remember why I had abandoned this child like faith. I realized that when one thing in my life did not go as I had wanted it to, I had stopped thinking that God would work in my life. I became skeptical. That day in my office, I agreed to trust God in my own life and believe in God’s power. I am sure I will have moments when things don’t go according to plan, but I will believe that God power is greater than any obstacle. I am going to believe that God’s power is greater than any trial. I am going to believe that

Sermon 1/18/09 What Would Jesus Say Part 2: "About Being Hypocritical"

"What Would Jesus Say to about being Hypocritical?

Matthew 23

Some of you may have recently read or heard about Spencer Osborne, the pastor in Indianapolis that was arrested because he had two wives. According to court records, this was not the first incident of him having two wives. An article on the “Fight Bigamy” website says,

According to court records, when Osborne married Tucker Osborne on Nov. 11, he already was married to Gidget Harris. When he married Harris on Feb. 12, 2005, he already was married to Tonya Washington. Osborne married Washington on Sept. 18, 1999. Washington divorced him June 15, 2005.

The article went on to say that this was not his first church to work in. In 2006 he was dismissed from another church for stealing money.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine being able to have two wives at the same time. How does this happen? After I read this news story from an Indiana news website, one of the comments really caught my attention. It said,
This is nothing but more Christian bashing. Preachers should be left alone. Their private lives and finances should be sacrosanct… and no I don't really believe that, I think they should all be exposed for the frauds they are.
I am sure this person’s impression of pastors and probably Christians are shaped by our all of the stories about how we confess to live a certain way, but our actions show otherwise. It is like this pastor, who was living two lives.

On several occasions, Jesus talked about this very thing. In Matthew 23, Jesus has a whole litany of things to say to those who are hypocritical. Matthew 23 begins by saying,

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
"Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries [wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them 'Rabbi.'

To better understand Jesus’ strong words in this chapter, it will be helpful to understand who he is speaking these words to. His target for these words is the scribes and Pharisees, who were part of a religious group in early Judaism. Scribed were legal experts who knew the Old Testament law very well. Scribes were probably also Pharisees, but not all Pharisees were scribes.

Pharisees, like most groups did not all agree on everything, but there were some things they had in common, which help us to understand who they were. They were a Jewish group that believed it was important to maintain the purity system and the Old Testament laws. They were traditionalists in the sense that they believed it was necessary to live by the law in order to follow God. They were not the most powerful group in Jesus’ day as far as political leadership, but they certainly did have influence on the common people. Oftentimes they would impose strict rules for the people to ensure that they followed the Old Testament law. Pharisees also believed that when people died, they would experience a physical bodily resurrection when God’s kingdom was reestablished for the Jews.

Sometimes it is helpful to compare these groups in Jesus’ day to groups from our own day. Oftentimes they are compared to “conservatives” or “evangelicals.” Conservatives, like the Pharisees stressed high moral values and tended to try to influence those around them to live up to high moral standards. They also, like modern day conservatives, place a greater emphasis on the Bible (Or Old Testament laws) then other groups did. For example, Sadducees placed more value on the Temple.

In other ways, the Pharisees could be quite progressive. They were more willing to learn from the Jewish traditions that were passed down. They accepted the writings of the prophets and tended to have some “progressive” views on the afterlife. They believed that there would be a resurrection of the dead for those who followed God, which would have been progressive at the time.

In Matthew 23, Jesus gives seven woes (excluding vs. 14 because it is not is some early manuscripts.) to the Pharisees.

1. Keep people out of the kingdom of heaven
2. Get a convert and make them worse
3. Make oaths so they can lie
4. Make tithes, but neglect justice
5. Look good in public, but are bad on the inside
6. Good public life, bad private life
7. Claim superiority over those from the past when they commit the same sin.

Unrealistic Expectations

Jesus begins chapter 23 by saying that the problem of the Pharisees was not what they were actually teaching. Jesus says that the people should obey their teaching. Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was that their own lives were not matching up with what they were teaching. In other words, they were being “hypocritical.” In the bible, being “hypocritical” meant “to be an actor.” Jesus was saying that they put on an act.

Jesus says they are hypocritical not just because they ask everyone to live up to a certain standard, but because they will not do anything to help the people live up to the standard. Jesus uses the illustration of them tying heaven burdens to people’s shoulders, but are not willing to move a figure to help. They are keeping people away from God’s kingdom because they make it impossible to live the way God wants them to live.

It reminds me of work in high school. I worked at an open air market and we actually sold dirt. We would have to mix it up with fertilizer and then bag it. I remember my boss would come and show me how to do it every time I went to make it. Then, I would begin the process and would stand right beside me. He would stop me at every step and tell me I had done the job wrong. He had made the process so complicated with his unrealistic expectations.

Not only that, but Jesus does not see these religious leaders living up to this standard in their own lives. The people who are influenced by the Pharisees are not even able to see an example of the kind of life they are being asked to live.

Only Outward Focus

Jesus then goes on to say that they are hypocritical because they are only concerned about their outward appearance, while neglecting what is on the inside. He gives the example of the Pharisees wearing phylacteries and tassels (boxes that contained Scriptures as a reminder to obey God) all the while, they are not actually following the teachings they espouse. In other words, they are acting pious while living poorly.

How then do Jesus’ words about hypocrisy speak to us in our post-modern world?
This week I heard some astonishing news about how much money people spend to make themselves look younger.
The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, in their report on 2007, said that 11.7 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the U.S. Over the last 10 years the number of surgical procedures performed has increased by 114%. More astoundingly, the number of nonsurgical procedures increased by 754%.
In 2007, 90.1% of cosmetic procedures were performed on women. However, procedures performed on men are growing much faster. In fact, procedures done on men increased 17% since 2006.

While we tend to only be concerned with our outward appearances, God is concerned with what is on the inside. When we only take steps in our lives to look good on the outside and neglect the real issues of the heart and soul, we are being “hypocritical.” Jesus tells us that we must take steps to clean up the inside. What good does it do to clean the outside of the cup when the inside is filthy?

Sermon 1/11/09 What Would Jesus Say Part 1: "Judging Others"

“What would Jesus say about judging others?”

Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37-38

In a recent book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian, they gave a survey to 440 persons who where not Christians to see what they thought of Christians. In one of the questions, they listed unfavorable words to describe Christians and asked them to check the word if it described present day Christianity. 87% said that “judgmental” described some or a lot of Christians.[i] One of the quotes from an interviewee said, “Christians like to hear themselves talk. They are arrogant about their beliefs, but they never bother to figure out what other people actually think. They don’t seem to be very compassionate, especially when they feel strongly about something.”[ii]

I am not sure it took a book to discover that Christians can be judgmental. I am sure we have all heard stories of Christians being judgmental and we have all heard or even said similar comments as the one quoted above. I am also sure that Christians are not the only group of people who struggle with being judgmental. When I take a hard look at myself, I can see that there are times when I am judgmental. So, what does Jesus have to say about being judgmental?

Before we look closely at these two texts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it may be helpful to understand some about how religious life functioned for Jews in Jesus’ days. In Jesus’ day, religion defined everything in terms of its purity system. The closer something was to God, the purer it was so that to be close to God meant a person must be pure. There was a system in place to help people know how to remain pure so that something was either pure or it was impure. There were laws about which foods to eat, how to eat, what to wear, cleanliness, etc. If a person followed all these laws, then they were judged to be pure. If they violated these laws, they were considered to be impure.

Another piece of the cleanliness code was that holiness and purity went together. If a person was disfigured, handicapped, or sick, they were considered to be impure. Since to be pure was to be Godly, the sick or handicapped, sin began to be associated with sickness. If a person was sick or paralyzed, it was thought, they were this way because they were sinful. In other words, outward appearances brought judgment to people as being either Godly or sinful.[iii] As a result, people were categorized into person who were deserving of God’s grace and those who are not.

In a similar way, we have ways in which we judge people. We oftentimes use criteria like outward appearances, religious beliefs and practices, ethnicity, etc. Generally, we judge people as being good or bad based upon our own expectations about the way things should. Like those in Jesus’ day, we play the role of God in determining who is righteous and who sinners are, who is deserving of God’s grace and who isn’t. We judge people’s lives to see if they live up to our standards.

Offering Grace rather than Judgment

In Matthew and Luke, we have two sermons preached by Jesus. In Matthew, it is called, “The Sermon on the Mount” and in Luke it is called “The Sermon on the Plain.” Matthew’s account says,

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.[iv]

The Luke account is longer, adding a rhetorical question about the blind leading the blind,

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." He also told them a parable: "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.[v]

In the sermons recorded in Matthew and Luke, Jesus addressed passing judgment in this way by going right to the heart of the issue. He says in books, “Do not judge and you will not be judged.” Notice the negative comparisons he uses.

(1) If you judge, you will be judged
(2) Do not condemn and you will not be condemned

He then follows this up by saying two positive comparisons.

(1) If you forgive, you will be forgiven
(2) Give and it will be given to you

Luke summarizes these four statements by saying that the measure we give will be given back. If we judge others, God will judge us in the same way we judge others. If we forgive then God will forgive us. Matthew and Luke both seem to hold a theology of reciprocation. This means that when we do something it comes back to us. If we do something positive, it comes back positively, but if we do something negative, it comes back negatively. The gospel writers are not saying that Jesus believed in Karma so much as they are saying God is the ultimate judge who judges our actions. God can use whatever standard he sees fit, so if God sees us being judgmental, God will use this same standard.

When Luke refers to forgiveness, I think he has more in mind that just forgiving when someone wrongs us. I think he is referring to “releasing people from the expectations that you have set for them.”[vi] When we can release people from this expectation, then we experience God’s mercy in our lives for the times that we fall short of meeting his expectation.

On a personal note, I have often found myself being judgmental when it comes to listening to sermons. I love to preach sermons, but sometimes I have a hard time listening to sermons by other people because I want to critique everything in it. Sometimes I will get very nitpicky and critique words or phrases that seem to be “bad theology.” On several occasions I have caught myself and had this thought, “What would you feel like if other person judged your sermons as harshly as you judge theirs.” That is a very sobering thought, but that is what Jesus is reminding us as the consequence for judging other people.

Instead, I want people to think I am a great preacher and to forgive my “bad theology” when it occurs.” I want my wife to forgive my bad math every time I use it in a sermon. I hope the English majors out there can forgive my bad grammar or my spelling mistakes on the power point when they occur. If that is what I want, Jesus is telling me that I need to have this same grace and forgiveness when I see other people falling short.

Being Discerning, Not Judging

Jesus goes on in both the Matthew and Luke text to say that oftentimes we are so focused on the speck in the eyes of others that we miss the log in our own. In other words, we are so quick to judge the fault in everyone else that we miss our own faults. Jesus gives us some good advice. He tells us to take care of our own faults before we try to fix those around us.

We often struggle to find the balance between “being discerning” and “being judgmental.” Jesus is warning us not to be judgmental on the one hand and not overly tolerant on the other. Notice that while Jesus tells that we need to first deal with the log in our own eye, he still tells us that we should help others with the speck in their eye. Our culture in some ways have gone too far in the direction of being “nonjudgmental” that we never help others who are struggling with issues that are very destructive to their life. While Jesus warns against being judgmental, we are still to be discerning.

There are still things in our world that are destructive and harmful. I am still convinced that there are things that are right and wrong. For example, if I were engaging in something in my life that was harmful and destructive and my friend knew about it, but never said anything; he would not be a very good friend. Jesus is not trying to say that we should never make judgments or be discerning, he is just trying to say that we should not neglect our own faults and only focus on those around us.

Ultimately we become discerning when we open ourselves up to the possibility of being wrong and let God, who is the true judge to reveal to us our faults. Then, by the grace of God, we work to make those areas of our own life right. It is amazing how much different we approach others when we have struggled with issues ourselves. Instead of being judgmental, we become compassionate. Instead of arrogance, we have humility, because we know that without the grace of God, we would still be in this same struggle. We acknowledge our humanness and our vulnerability. It is out of our brokenness and dependence on God that we help others to know God’s love. We offer then Christ and allow God to work in their lives in such a way as to clean up the junk in their life.

I think this is the point behind Luke telling us that the blind cannot lead the blind. We cannot lead someone else where we have not gone. We cannot help others remove the spec in their eye until we have allowed God’s grace to remove the log in our own eye.

The best way I have heard said about how to do this came from the book No Perferct People when John Burke first says that we must see everyone as a work of art that God is continually shaping. Then he says the way we approach others is to remember that, “All people are in process, and if they are willing, God is going to be gently cleaning the mud off his Rembrandt until their final day. So we must be patient like God.”[vii]

[i] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2007) 28.
[ii] Ibid, 182.
[iii] Ben Witherington The Jesus Quest (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL 1997) 34-35
[iv] NRSV Matthew 7:1-5
[v] NRSV Luke 6:37-38
[vi] Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke “The New International Commentary on the New Testament” ed. Gordon Fee. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, 1997) 275. Green actually says “forgive” means “release from obligations” or “give without expectation of return.”
[vii] John Burke, No Perfect People (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2005)101. This chapter is “Creating a Culture of Acceptance.” His view is that we are all in “process.”

Advent Sermon 12/21/08: When Jesus Comes to Town Part Three "Preparing Our Mind For Christmas"

“Preparing Your Mind for Christmas”

I read a story about a little boy who was making his Christmas wish list to God. He began the letter, “I know I have been bad this year, but if you will give me the things on this list, then I will be good for a year.” After giving some thought to the letter, he decided a year was too long, so he changed it to say, “I will be good for a month.” Then, he scribbled out month and wrote in, “week.” After giving some more though, he went into the living room to the manger scene and took the figure Mary and went back to his room and wrote, “God, You better give me what I want because I have your mother.”

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been talking being prepared for Jesus’ Coming to Town. Two weeks ago we talked about preparing our families by taking opportunities to share the story of Jesus in the Christmas season. Last week we talked about preparing our hearts by taking all of things that is between us and God and getting rid of it so we can make the road straight for what God is going to do in our lives.

This morning I want to talk about preparing our minds for Christmas. The Christmas story, while oftentimes compelling to our heats, can often cause serious stumbling blocks for our minds. You may remember in Luke’s gospel, the story of Mary hearing that she is going to have a child. The text says,

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

Mary’s response was simple, “How can this be?” You can imagine her being perplexed by this announcement. I am sure it was difficult to get her mind around the reality that the angle was telling her.

Many scholars today still struggle with the very same question that Mary is asking. They believe that Luke and Matthew must have a deeper meaning behind saying Mary was a virgin since there is no way she could be pregnant that way. This is not the only thing that troubles scholars. They point out that in the book of Matthew, Mary and Joseph are from Bethlehem and in Luke they live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem. In Matthew Jesus is born at home and in Luke he is in a guest house of some sort. In Matthew he is visited by Wiseman and in Luke it is Shepherds. In other words, they ask the same question as Mary asked the angel, “How can this be?”

The angle gives Mary this response to her question,

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

In other words the answer to this question is that God will do it and God has the power to anything.

When I try to wrap my brain around the birth narratives, especially the virgin birth of Jesus, I recognize that in my mind it does not all make sense. However, I believe that God was present in Jesus because I believe Jesus was God. I believe that Jesus died and was buried. I believe that Jesus was resurrected and I believe Jesus that God wants to save the world through Jesus. These are also pretty strange things to believe, yet I believe them. So, when it comes to the birth stories, while I don’t understand it all, I guess I believe that if God can do all these other things, then I can believe that God brought his son into the world using a virgin.

To me, one of the most powerful images about the Christmas story is that God can do that which seems impossible. More than that, God can use me to do these things where seem to be impossible. God can use you to do the impossible. We just need some of Mary’s faith when she says, “"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered, "May it be to me according to your word."

On this Sunday before Christmas, we are going to experience again the Christmas story, this time through the eyes of children, because in the end, when we have faith like a child we can see God do the impossible!

Advent Sermon 12/14/08: When Jesus Comes to Town Part 2: "Preparing Your Hearts for Christmas"

“Preparing Our Hearts For Christmas”

Mark 1:1-4

We are in the season of Advent now and we are talking about how to be prepared for the coming of Jesus. Last week we talked about Preparing our families by taking time to share the world of God with our families this Christmas season. Today, I want to talk about preparing our hearts.

I am sure you will agree with me that home ownership has its fair share of hardships. Over the past couple of years, I have learned a lot about owning a home, like never call a plumber unless you really need one because the last time I did it, I was charged $200 for a 10 minute repair.

A while back, Melanie and I noticed that when she would do laundry there would be suds that would bubble up in the back yard. I decided that I would take a look at the pipes and try to figure out what was happening, so I dug a hole and discovered that the PVC pipe that comes from the washing machine drain was running into a field line that just ended somewhere in my back yard. The problem was that the black field pipe was getting backed up, causing the water to run out the wrong end of the pipe.

A little while later, we discovered that the water was backing up so much that it was coming back into the laundry room. After a number of consolations with other guys who have all given me slightly different advice, I decided that I would fix the problem myself. I began digging a large hole at the end of the field pipe a couple of Mondays ago in the freezing cold snow. If you can imagine the scene my neighbors witnessed, you can only laugh. They must think I am going nuts.

I was able to lay a new field pipe down and put it in gravel and fill the large whole with gravel so that the water now has a place to drain. Apparently the people who first put this line in did not realize that dirt will stop up wholes and prevent proper drainage. Now, hopefully, the new line will drain properly. In Mark’s gospel we also see a charge that we are to make a clear path for God when he comes into our lives.
In Mark’s gospel, he begins the book by saying,
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way" " a voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' "
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Unlike any the other two synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke) Mark does not begin with the birth stories of Jesus. He simply says that the good news begins as it is written in the Prophet Isaiah. The particular passage is from Isaiah 40:3, but if we were to examine it closely, you will notice that the passage Mark quotes is longer that what we have in Isaiah 40:3. Notice:

Mark 1:2b
"I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"
Malachi 3:1 "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

Mark 1:3 a voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' "

Isaiah 40:3 A voice of one calling: "In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God

If you look close, you will notice Mark has added something to the beginning of the text, which actually comes from Malachi 3:1, which reads “"I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.” Let’s put these two verses together to understand what the beginning of the good news might be that Mark is trying to tell us about.

Christmas as a Life Changing Event

In Malachi 3, we read that the messenger will come to prepare the way before God who will come to the temple and purify the people until they present offerings to God that are pleasing. Malachi has been saying that the people are corrupt and the priesthood is corrupt due to injustices and to idle worship. This is causing the offerings that are made to God be corrupt. This messenger will then prepare the people for God to come by changing their heart so that the offerings in the temple will be pure.

The Isaiah passage, as Dwight pointed out a couple of weeks ago was written to people who were in captivity. They had seen their homeland and the temple destroyed. Isaiah says that their penalty has been repaid. God will then reveal his glory and the Lord’s people will see it. God’s people should then make prepare the way for the Lord to come.

By Mark drawing these two passages together, I believe he is trying to say that God is sending a messenger to the people so that they can prepare themselves because God is about to do something amazing. Mark is saying that the good news begins by God sending a messenger ahead of us to prepare the way for what God is about to do. In Mark’s gospel, as well as Matthew and Luke, this messenger is John, who comes to proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

One of the things I love so much about Advent and Christmas is that it reminds me that God is in the process of doing something great. When we celebrate the “good news that a child was born” we are celebrating the fact that God broke into human history in the form of a baby in the manger. When we celebrate Jesus’ birth each year we are saying again that God is still in the midst of going something great in our world.

I think we too often get accused of thinking too much about Jesus and the little baby at Bethlehem, but the fact is I think we actually think too little of him. Seldom do we see his birth as life changing for us. We find the story cute and warm, but it never goes any deeper. More than that, we seldom believe that this baby is life changing for us and world changing for those around us. I think it is time for us as Christians to really believe in Christmas. It is time for us to believe that God is ready to change the world. I time for us to believe that God is ready to change us.

Cleaning Up Our Hearts for the Coming of Jesus

When we look at the Isaiah passage again, we notice that Isaiah says when the Lord comes, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” Traveling is difficult if the terrain is rough or extremely unlevel so the smoother the road, the better.

When God comes, we should make the road clear for his coming. John Jewell says it well in his sermon, “Preparing”,

The way for God to come into our lives should be on a road that is clear of debris and easy to traverse. It should not be "an uphill battle" for Christ to gain entrance into our lives. …. John’s call to repentance is a call to turn away from everything that clutters the highway of my life and to raise the priority of my relationship with the Lord during this season.

Preparing for Christmas should involve preparing our hearts so that we can experience all that God has in store for us.