What Suffering Produces

In this sermon, I tried to help our church family see that suffering is essential to the development of Biblical hope in Jesus. As Paul lays it out in Romans 5, if someone is walking in shame, then God’s plan for them is to enter into suffering in Christ to produce hope.

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But Jesus Never Claims To Be God…

Over at 22Words, John Piper’s son Abraham’s site of wonderful aggregate cultural goodness, there is a post about 30 of the most misquoted lines in Western culture.  One misquote that stands out is the line where Darth Vader reveals his identity to Luke in Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back.

Now, anyone who is a fan of Star Wars and found themselves near a spinning fan blade can admit to pulling the fan close to their mouth whilst exclaiming in a low voice — a la Tommy Boy — “Luke, I am your father.” Every time we meet someone named Luke we inevitably make this joke.  Any father who wants to reinforce his authority over his children jokes in this manner.  We all say it — “Luke, I am your father.”

Here is the problem — Darth Vader doesn’t say, “Luke, I am your father.”  He says, “I am your father.”  But everyone who has seen that seen summarizes it with the line, “Luke, I am your father” because we all essentially understand the thrust of the logic of that scene.  Darth Vader is revealing himself not to simply be a father, but to be Luke’s father — which means that Luke is the son of Darth Vader. Pretty basic exegetical analysis of that scene.

How This Scene Helps Us In Apologetics

Often times in conversations with my non-Christian friends and neighbors, I will hear someone make the assertion that Jesus never claimed to be God. They will look to texts like John 10:30 “I and the Father are one” and take the straightforward literal translation and conclude that Jesus did not claim to be God.  My Mormon friends make such an accusation.  My atheist friends make a similar allegation.  My Bahá’í friends justify this claim with similar logic.

And, let me say, that I understand the basis for such counter-claims.  After all, evangelical Christians claim to be people of the Book who use a straightforward literal interpretation of scripture.  So when we look to passages like John 10:30 and then begin to interpret it using a more sophisticated interpretive approach, we set ourselves up for such comebacks from our non-Christian friends.  I will admit my own inconsistencies in this matter.

But lets get to the truth at hand here.  Everyone who watches Darth Vader’s confession knows what he is claiming — that He is Luke’s father — despite the fact that he never says the exact wording, “Luke, I am your father.” His intent is clearly understood by the audience.

Likewise, when Jesus says “The Father and I are one” His intent is clearly understood by the audience.  We can have exegetical side conversations about straightforward verses nuanced meaning in interpretation until we are red in the face. But that doesn’t change the reality that we can confidently know that Darth is Luke’s father and we can confidently know that Jesus is God based on the evidence of language and authorial intent.

So, the next time your Mormon friends knock on the door, invite them in, offer them some non-caffeinated drinks, and show them The Empire Strikes Back.  Then start up that conversation about John 10:30 and see where it leads.  You may be able to argue about exegetical technicality, but you can’t argue with Darth Vader.

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Everybody Suffers, But Christians Suffer Best

In this sermon, I wanted to make the argument that Christians suffer in the best way possible.  The reason? Jesus Christ is sovereign over our suffering and able to work all things together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purposes (Romans 8:28).

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Tri-Weekly, Try Weekly, and Try Weakly: A Christian View Of Marriage And Sex

In the last sermon of our Love Is series, I hoped to provide some practical advice on being a Christian married couple from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Bottom Line: If you are not married, stop pursuing sex.  If you are married, start prioritizing sex.

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How Might Christians Define Love?

In the sermon above (which kicked off our 8-week series on Love that leads up to Easter) my goal was to help us define love through a careful examination of Biblical principles, theological vision, and a rich understanding of God and the Gospel.

To Define Love

One of my friends, Ronnie Worsham, has this great saying. The basic logic runs like this:

God is the only being in the universe that does not need anything.  Therefore, that sets Him apart to be the being who gives and gives and gives.  Giving (love) is in God’s essential nature. This reality about God will free Christians up to be able to also give and give (love) because Christians have confidence that God will fill them back up.

Two thoughts on Ronnie’s idea:

  1. In terms of the sermon above, the working definition of love that I arrived at goes something like this: Love is imitating God by giving of ourselves, especially when it is inconvenient. This is, in essence, my summary of Ronnie’s summary of Ephesians 5:1-2. Ronnie is merely trying to articulate what Paul is saying in Ephesians 5 about love and imitating Christ, who demonstrated love amidst inconvenience throughout His earthly ministry.
  2. This idea of the Gospel having some element of risk, and yet an element of assurance, is what my friend Owen Strachan was trying to articulate in his book Risky Gospel (I recommend that book to anyone who is interested in this take on the Gospel).  Because God is God, we have the freedom to risk in attempting grand endeavors to do Kingdom ministry, such as how we attempt to love people in a radical way or in how we build systems and institutions that promote Gospel ideas for long sessions of ministry.
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How Do You Minister To Millennials?

I get the question all the time from people, “How in the world do you minister to millennials?”

This is a rather complicated question with an even more complicated and (honestly) incomplete answer. To begin to answer this question, let me first lay down four preliminary working definitions.

Four Things To Consider When Doing Ministry To Millennials

First, Millennials are people born between 1980 and 1995 (Or in some cases 1980-2000).  These are adults who are between 21 and 36 years of age today (Or 16-36 today).

Second, Millennials were largely raised under a cultural parenting paradigm of child-rearing influenced by Dr. Benjamin Spock. In Spock’s estimation, parents needed to make children the central touchstone of any parenting approach.  Essentially, children are not to be directed by parents, but are to be accommodated by parents. The prototypical example of this approach is that when millennials sat down to evening dinner their parents gave them options for dinner instead of providing a single meal for the entire family.  If Bobby doesn’t want what parents are eating, then Bobby gets to select mac and cheese, pizza, etc…

Third, Millennials have grown up in an American society whose highest cultural value is personality.  I wrote about this recently at our church blog.

Americans used to hold to a common supreme individual cultural value — character development. The classic example from this time period of character development is a story about a young puritan girl who wants to help a homeless beggar to find a hot meal during a particularly brutal New England winter. The young girl waits until nightfall so as to be able to help the beggar under a cloak of anonymity. She finds some bread and meat, puts it into a basket, and stealthily places the food next to the beggar before slipping away unnoticed.

This girl from the example was trying to obey Matthew 6:1, which in the NIV reads, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

This portrait of a young person stands in stark contrast with a current portrait of a millennial. Consider this description:

No good deed ever goes unnoticed in the millennial generation because there is a fear of missing out (FOMO) of letting others known just how cool and generous you are. And the true motive as to good deeds has never been less clear in the eyes of the recipients of the good deeds. Is this person genuinely wanting to help? Or are they trying to increase their followers, likes, and clicks? Does this person even care about the larger issues of homelessness, institutional poverty, charity? Or are millennial selfie adults more concerned with image, perception, and personality?

You can read more about this here. But safe to say that our present culture is not one that expects to have the reward of steadfast character derived from a significant season of disciplined spiritual development.

Fourth, Because millennials have grown up with loads of options in every facet of life, they have always experienced a phenomenon known presently as FOMO — fear of missing out.  In other words, millennials are skilled at constantly weighing the opportunity cost of any particular decision in all areas of life at every moment of their waking existence. The prototypical example of FOMO occurs when Joe asks Bob on Sunday if he wants to hang out on Tuesday and Bob replies, “Sounds good, text me on Tuesday to confirm.” Note that Bob has not confirmed that he and Joe are hanging out on Tuesday.  Bob has seen this event on Tuesday as a place holder in his calendar.  Bob may confirm with Joe on Tuesday. Or, Bob may see another event come along that is better that hanging out with Joe.  By agreeing in principle to Joe’s offer without totally locking in to Joe’s offer, Bob keep his options open to maximizing his life experience.

Putting It Together For Ministry Purposes

So, with these four loose working definitions in mind, let me lay down a basic guidelines to ministering to millennials.  I have borrowed the majority of these tips from my friend Shane Pruitt who wrote earlier in the Baptist Press:

  1. Invite and lead them towards participation. As Shane writes, “Remember, the younger generation is not the future of the church — if they’ve been redeemed with the blood of Jesus, they’re the church right now. Let them have some ownership of the ministry and be patient with them when they mess up, possibly a lot.”  They likely are not interested in coming to learn from you in a lecture relationship.  They are likely to learn from you as they participate with you in ministry.
  2. Offer them solutions to big hairy problems.  Often times we want to talk down to those we minister to.  Again, millennials have experienced everything you have experienced, only they saw it at an earlier age.  Sex, drugs, death, divorce, depression, etc… They already know about these categories.  So lean into it.  Share your frustration with each with them (maybe not sex…but you get it).  What they want is what you have — perspective.  Offer them your perspective on how to solve these and other big problems in life.
  3. Invite them to a cause worth dying for.  Mentoring for character development doesn’t sound good to millennial ears.  Mentoring for the purpose of getting developed to love those in poverty, or to minister to those in a prison system, or to reach the nations with the Gospel is something millennials can get on board with.  They may not call it “character development” but they will recognize the tools and development needed in order to tackle big causes.  Character development will occur, but as a side benefit instead of as the main benefit.
  4. Shape their categories.  Broadly speaking, millennials don’t know much about anything for various cultural reasons.  They want doctrine.  They want to know clear categories for interpreting life.  They want to know global truths, not regional beliefs.  So take them deep into scripture and into doctrine.  Millennials have shown an excitement around Calvinism and Catholicism in particular.  But there is still room for Arminian thought and other voices in doctrine.  Bottom line, if you aren’t thinking about why all of this matters, then you are not thinking about what millennials are thinking about.  Think about big ideas and invite millennials to join you.
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Don’t Exchange Packages, Give Gifts

If you have ever read Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, you will remember that some people in this world receive and interpret love in the form of receiving gifts.  By way of self-disclosure, I am one of those blessed people.  I love gifts. I love receiving gifts.  I love it when someone knows me well enough to give me just the right gift. This is so much the case that, for many of us love-as-gift people, we can remember almost every significant gift received and can also recall many of the little gifts given for seemingly no reason at all.  And to be clear, I don’t love stuff.  Simply giving me something when you could have given me the right thing does not communicate love.  No, love (in my worldview) is a well-thought out gift given at the appropriate time in the appropriate way.

Which is why I think people need to consider the weight of importance that Christmas plays in the process of communicating love through gift giving.

A few years ago a preached a sermon that addressed this issue head on.  I was then as I am now — concerned that many people don’t give gifts.  Instead, they default into merely exchanging packages.  And there is a significant difference between the two. Think about it.  When you receive an energy bill it usually comes in a package — an envelope.  But rarely do you draw the family together to sing songs whilst you open your energy bill and then wonder at the amazement of what all could take place upon seeing this beautiful gift.  No, you have simply opened a package.

Gift giving is an entirely different experience all together.  It is marked by a significant process of exchange wherein both gift giver and gift receiver rejoice in the exchange.  Think about any gift you have given — aren’t you tempted to argue that giving the gift was as much or more joyful than receiving the gift? Gifts are different than packages.

But back to my concerns.  I have identified at least three competing motivations that distract us from giving good gifts and turn us into package exchangers.  And the result of this perversion of gift giving is significant:

  • Some give out of duty. This is not a gift, it is a chore.
  • Others give out of fear. This is not a gift, it is a peace offering.
  • Still others give out of a desire to seek favor with the recipient. This is not a gift, it is a bribe.

A good question to ask yourself, especially as you move into the Christmas season is, “What is my motivation in handing out this package?”  Is it duty? You sense an obligation to keep up with the Joneses in the form of reciprocal giving?  Or is it out of fear — my kids will hate me if I don’t give them this certain thing?  Or is it out of a desire to seek favor — I need to make it up to my spouse/son/daughter since I have been a lousy spouse/dad?

One of the continually amazing things about God the Father is that He has demonstrated gift giving as love for us in the way He sent His Son to the earth.  John 3:16-17 says this, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

It pleased God as the Giver to send His Son to earth to live a perfect life, teach perfect Truth, and to die and rise again.  And the recipients of this Gift — humanity — rejoice in both the gift, the exchange, and the Giver of the gifts.

So this Christmas, may you imitate God in the way you give gifts to your family and friends.  May you have as much or more joy in the giving than those who will experience joy in the receiving.

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At Christmas, Jesus Came For Our Condition

One of the great things about the Christmas season is that no matter who you are or where you come from, once you enter into Christmas you will begin to associate the season with the ideals of peace and hope and love and joy. Whether you are listening to a Mariah Carey album or singing through Bing Crosby’s classic rendition of Silent Night, these themes will come to surface in your mind and you will find yourself unconsciously meditating on the Advent.

But the hidden curriculum of this unconscious meditation of Advent is designed to lead you to consider afresh what the ideals of peace, love, joy, and hope mean, both in terms of their experiential nature as well as in terms of their Biblical origins.

Recently, I was able to take my church congregation through an refreshment course of sorts through the Advent themes. When it came to the theme of Peace, we were in amazement about just what The Father was hoping to accomplish in bringing the Prince of Peace to earth as a baby.

Consider this reality of human nature.  Humans operate in a basic sequence of being: They have a condition that produces behavior and this behavior leads to the shaping of a perspective.

If these human beings are not saved and shaped by the Holy Spirit, then the Bible describes a particular variety of this basic sequence of being: A sinful condition produces sinful behavior, which begets the shaping of a sinful perspective.

Now, consider what the media, literature, and pop-psychology suggest as a solution to shape this basic sequence of being.  Numerous television personalities speak to the need for modifying one’s perspective to free one’s mind to receive peace and happiness.  And, an even greater number of books focus on behavior management as a means to peace and happiness.  But how many of these pop-psychology experts speak to the need for change of condition?

After all, if it is true that condition breeds behavior which breeds perspective, then why don’t these thought leaders address the cause of the issue, rather than simply staying their course of addressing symptoms alone? Don’t get me wrong, I agree that behavior must be managed and that perspective must be modified.  But why should humans work so hard to deal with symptoms instead of the root cause?  Isn’t this a picture of anxiety? The word “peace” would seem to require an entirely different approach.

Now consider the Biblical narrative.  When God comes to earth in Luke 2 the Bible says that it was good news of great joy for all people and that the result of this coming was “peace.”  Peace occurs when humans are aligned in the basic sequence of being — as condition and behavior and perspective are grounded in one all unifying reality. And this is precisely what Jesus came to achieve.

Jesus did not simply come to help us manage our sinful behavior–a sort of Christian way of moving from one pitfall to the next. Jesus did not simply come to help us modify our perspective–teaching us to detach from the material world as some sort of Jewish Buddha.   Jesus came for our condition–and in the process came to shape our behavior and perspective.

  • He lived a perfect life, showing us the way we may live.
  • He taught on the reality of living before God, showing us the way we should think.
  • And, he died on the Cross and rose again, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–changing our condition through salvation.

So this Christmas, the reason we celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ is precisely because Christ followers have the unique opportunity to experience true peace–in a condition, behavior, and perspective–that centers on the greatest gift that the Giver of Gifts has ever given.

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