Simple Way to Listen Through Scripture

Reading scripture is challenging. It’s an ancient compilation of documents, written by multiple people and communities over centuries of history, reflecting multiple cultures. The Bible is a whole different world from our own. Those barriers can be daunting. Sometime so daunting we leave it to “religious professionals”.

That said, God speaks simply and clearly through scripture despite all these challenges. So simply and clearly that a little child can read it’s stories and know God and be changed. It’s true, the more time we invest and the better we understand the nuances of scripture the more “at home” we feel in the strange world of the Bible.

Here are some tips for simply starting and trust that God can speak simply and clearly to you.

  1. Just start. Like anything, showing up and beginning are critical. Start with a simple prayer: “God if you are real, and if you speak through this word, help me hear you.”
  2. Don’t start alone. Ask someone to give you suggestions about where to start. Ask that same someone if they will read with you. Talk with each other about what you’re reading.
  3. Focus on what you do understand, not what you don’t. You’ll have lots of questions and be confused by many things as you read scripture. But as you read some things will be crystal clear. Focus on what you do understand.

Here are some simple questions to guide you as you start reading:

  1. What did you like or find interesting about what you read?
  2. What troubled you or what questions do you have about what you read?
  3. What do you sense God is asking you to do or to be as a result of reading this text? Obey what you know. Mark Twain famously said, “I ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”
  4. Who should I share this with? For example, you might tell a friend or a loved one: “I was reading this story about loving one another and I thought you might enjoy it too.”

The Resurrection of the Dead

The following is the sermon manuscript I used on April 8, 2017, the Second Sunday of Easter. It will vary in places from the actual sermon preached.

Sermon Text – Ruth 1:1-5

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

“God is a God of the living, not the dead.” That is the proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for all people and for all time.

Ruth is a story about resurrection. Naomi begins this story as a person surrounded by death – the deaths of her husband and her sons – with only death to look forward to herself. She ends this story celebrating a new birth. Naomi begins this story as a foreigner in a foreign land with no family except her adopted family in Ruth. She ends this story in her own hometown with her own relative to look after her for her the rest of her life. Naomi begins this story as someone whose line is all but cut off – her sons bore no children! It ends with her as the great-great grandmother of David, the king. Naomi begins this story, as we’ll see next week, wanting to rename herself “Mara” – bitter – because “the Almighty has dealt bitterly with [her].” She ends this story hearing the chorus of the women: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you . . . He [through his redeemer] shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.”

“God is a God of the living, not the dead.” That is the proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for all people and for all time.

Ruth is indeed a story about resurrection. But as all good resurrection stories go, it is a story that begins in death. In the first seven words, we find out that this story takes place “in the time of the Judges.” Now the only reason Derek and I picked the gloomy book of Judges for our Lenten sermon series is so that you’d know exactly what that setting means.

Ok, that’s not entirely true.

Actually, we’re sadists.

Ok, that’s not exactly true either.

No, the reason we forced you through the doom and gloom of Judges for five weeks (I know you probably thought it was longer than that!) was to highlight how much depravity the human race is capable of on its own and how desperately we need Jesus to rise from the dead! And we kept the depravity kind of tame! We didn’t even go into the end of the book of Judges and discuss the concubine who’s thrown out to an angry mob that literally rapes her to death Sodom-and-Gomorrah-style so that her priest-lover can dismember her body and send pieces of it to the twelve tribes of Israel which, of course, starts a civil war!

You’re welcome.

The refrain in the book of Judges, as its very last verse says, is “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Doing what is right in your own eyes is sin. And as we know from the second chapter of the Bible onward, sin always leads to death. When God warns Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, God says that the “day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Up to the moment that Adam and Eve eat of the fruit, they only knew good. And every moment since we, their children, have known good and evil. Death is evil. It is not part of God’s original design of creation. It is a corruption perpetrated by us – every human being that’s ever lived – as we work with Satan himself to bring it about. It is God’s pronouncement of judgment, a curse, that if the things he’s created insist on having their own way apart from him, he allows them to do so. And the way apart from God leads to death. As Judges shows us, doing what is right in your own eyes leads to death.

The desire of the people of Israel eventually becomes the desire for a king who will show them what is right in God’s eyes. Of course, there is resistance to this idea of earthly kingship (going all the way back to Moses) because God himself desires to be their king. And some of the irony in these first few verses is that a man whose name is “My God is King” – Elimelech – is going to reject God as king and do what is right in his own eyes. Now, we can’t be too judgmental of Elimelech. We would probably do the same thing if we were in his situation. If our family faced starvation, we would probably want to take them away to a place with food! Hear again the irony: Bethlehem, the “House of Bread” has no bread! What choice does he have?

But Elimelech should know that this starvation is the result of famine that’s God’s punishment for Israel’s disobedience in the time of Judges, and that if the people repented and cried out to God he would again show them his favor! Instead of trusting in the Lord, his King, to provide, he despairs. He names his children based on the words that mean “to be sick” – Mahlon – and “to come to an end” – Chilion. And he takes his wife, “Pleasant” – or Naomi – and he leaves the Promised Land to go to the land of Israel’s sworn enemy, Moab.

And he dies.

He dies leaving Naomi a widow and his sons without wives away from their hometown in Bethlehem, away from their fellow Ephrathites, away from Judah, away from the covenant people of Israel. And it’s Elimelech’s desperate disobedience that leads to the desperate disobedience of his sons, for they ignore clear commands in the Law against marrying people outside the covenant community – specifically against marrying those Moabite women – and take Ruth and Naomi as their wives. And for ten years they are childless in Moab. Orpah and Ruth bear no children. And Mahlon and Chilion die in Moab away from their home.

And Naomi is left with no husband, no children, no grandchildren. She is a stranger in a strange land, the victim of the results of sin and death, the victim of the choices of people she loved who, though desperate, wanted to do what was right in their own eyes in the face of that desperation.

She will not repeat that pattern.

She will go home. She will be faithful. She will trust in the Lord and be kind to her Moabite daughter-in-law. And in the midst of death, God will make new life. Naomi, destitute and lacking hope, will be one of the great-grandmothers of the Source of all hope – Jesus Christ – as God works wonders around this foreign daughter-in-law of hers. A foreigner in a foreign land, she will be the demonstration, through her daughter-in-law, Ruth, that God welcomes the stranger, the foreigner, the sojourner into his Kingdom! Indeed, God welcomes in especially those in the margins, those even hated by people who claim to be his people, because God’s reach is global. Naomi’s life, though here surrounded by death, will be the example for us, who live over 3,000 years after her, that God is a God of the living, not the dead.

Because in the midst of death, in the midst of despair, even in the midst of her doubt as we’ll see next time, Naomi trusts in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. No, of course she was not a witness to it. Well, actually she was, just not in the way we normally think about who a witness is. The only Jesus she knew was the leader who conquered the Promised Land under the hand of God – Joshua. The Jesus we know is named after Joshua, “God Saves.” Even though she would see none of Jesus’ signs or miracles, Naomi returns to the land of Joshua, to the very town in which Jesus would be born. She does not try to find a redeemer in the midst of people who do not worship her God. Instead she returns humbly, but grieving, to find a redeemer in the birthplace of our Redeemer, Jesus, the one who over 1,000 years after her would be the Redeemer of the whole world.

How do we react to the despair of sin and death? I don’t have to explain to you what reacting to death feels like. We see it too often all around us to need a reminder. We have felt it in the loss of loved ones. We have feared it in the sicknesses of our friends. We have mourned it for our country and for the world – especially when it is so hard for us to escape the constant images of violence and warfare and death. We have known it in our churches as we have seen attendance and giving decline, and as we have seen other churches with long histories shut their doors.

Certainly, we grieve. It is right and proper for us to grieve death because death is opposed to God! Wherever we see death, we should hate it and long for its final end when, as Revelation 21 tells us, death is cast into the very pit of Hell along with sin forever and ever.

If there is an overall shape to the pattern of Judges, it’s that the people of God move from good times at the start to truly horrific times through their own disobedience. And if there’s an overall shape to Ruth, it’s the movement from raw, familial tragedy, as we see in our passage today, to the abundant life that’s promised to the whole world through the Son of David, the Son of God, Jesus Christ who rose from the dead!

But where is God in this story? That’s certainly a question we ask in the midst of death, isn’t it?

I have to admit made quite a few assumptions here. I’ve said that the famine was judgment for Israel’s disobedience. I’ve said that Elimelech and his sons’ disobedience led to death. I’ve said that God will restore Naomi and bring about new life. I’ve inferred these things from other scriptures. But the text today doesn’t explicitly say any of that. God as a character in the book of Ruth seems to be absent. Oh certainly, characters mention God, the LORD, the Almighty. But there is no direct narration of God actively doing anything.

But what a grave mistake it would be for us to assume that God is anywhere close to absent in this story! The book of Ruth is one of the most powerful statements of God’s sovereign hand over all creation in the Bible. There are many things that will happen over the next few chapters that we might be tempted to say are just coincidence, or luck, or shrewd women taking advantage of a situation. Shrewd, faithful, and obedient women do take advantage of the situations in this book, but they do so because God has arranged it. God sees their need, and he meets their need. He sees their desperate state, he sees their example of faith and faithfulness, and he brings them from death to life.

Because “God is a God of the living, not the dead.” That is the proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for all people and for all time.

The times in our lives when God seems the most absent, as he does in many places in the book of Ruth, are not the times when God has ceased to work! God is working, even here through refugees, to bring all his people into a home – his home. God is working, even here through a foreigner, to bring all his people into his family. God is working, even here, to bring life from death. Indeed he is working to bring into the world the One who is the Resurrection and the Life! Especially in the places we do not see him working, God is on the move bringing death to life for us and for his whole creation!

At the center of all of human history is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the center of all human hope is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the center of eternal, everlasting life – for Naomi and for us today – is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in this season of Easter, in the midst of grieving real tragedy in our personal lives, in the world, and in our churches, we proclaim that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has made all things new.

In the name of the One who has passed from death to life, to whom we proclaim all majesty and glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen.

A Year of Worship: The Presentation of Our Lord

Image: The Presentation by James B. Janknegt

I confess that until today, my Christmas decorations were still up. This wasn’t intentional – there’s a newborn in our home after all. In the South, there’s a superstition about leaving your decorations up past New Years. By English tradition, Twelfth Night (Jan. 5th) is the proper time to de-decorate as it’s the night before Epiphany.

But in many parts of the Christian world, decorations are left up until February 2nd, exactly 40 days after Christmas. For many Christians, the “Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord” is the end of a whole Christmas & Epiphany season.

Forty days after his birth, as part of her worship, Mary brought Jesus to the temple. She was dedicating her firstborn son in obedience to Exodus 13:12-15 and making the sacrifices God commanded in Leviticus 12:1-4.

But this dedication was unlike the thousands of other dedications that had taken place there before. As Mary’s son, Jesus’ dedication was indeed in response to God sparing the firstborn of Israel when he passed over them in Egypt. But as God’s son, Jesus’ presentation at the temple was a foreshadowing of the cross. God spared the firstborn of Israel, but God’s love for Israel was so deep, he would not spare even his own firstborn son to redeem them!

The people who encountered Jesus that day knew that this was no ordinary dedication. This was the LORD God himself returning to his own temple. The prophetess Anna gave thanks because the Redeemer of Israel had arrived! Simeon, who had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not “see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ,” exclaimed, “My eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon’s proclamation of Jesus as the “light for revelation” for the whole world is reflected in the Christian tradition to bless candles during Feast of the Presentation services. This act led to another name for the day itself: “Candlemas.” The tradition highlights Christ’s light as one of the major themes of the Epiphany season, a season that begins with three Magi finding Jesus by following a star and ends with three disciples seeing Jesus transfigured before their eyes with bright rays of light.

Candlemas is a rare celebration among Cumberland Presbyterians. Nevertheless, it remains part of the ancient worship of the Church which proclaims Jesus as the Light of the World:

“The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. . . The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness.” (Sophronius, Bishop of Jerusalem, AD 638)

The Shepherd Prince

This is part of a series of sermon manuscripts I’ve preached while traveling to other churches. For more information, see the introduction to “Preaching the Blessed Gospel.”

Below is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017, at West Point Presbyterian Church in West Point, GA, and Lebanon Presbyterian Church in rural Chambers County, AL. For more about these churches, click here.

As with all the manuscripts I post, the actual sermon varied in places. 


First Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:31-46

Sermon Text: Ezekiel 34:11-24


Jesus Christ is our Shepherd and our Prince. And that is truly good news.

We all know that we should live our lives in light of this truth. We all know that we are supposed to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger and the foreigner, feed the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. Maybe we do some of these things well. But if you’re like me, our Gospel passage from Matthew this morning probably scares you more than it comforts you. If you’re like me, the words of Jesus in that passage probably shock you by exposing how selfish you really are – who I have neglected while I’ve been busy with my own wants cares and desires? Am I like the wicked, neglectful, and gluttonous shepherds Ezekiel condemns in our lesson for today?

The holidays certainly bring out some of the best and worst in us. The irony of what I’m about to say has been pointed out by many other people in many other places, but it’s worth saying again: on Thursday, we spent time being thankful for what we have already received; on Friday, we spent time knocking other people out of the way to get things we don’t need. But you don’t have to be a participant in “Black Friday” to get caught up in the consumption of the holidays! Some of us showed up to Thanksgiving without bringing a dish. Some of us who showed up to Thanksgiving without bringing a dish just sat around after the meal and let the same people who cooked do the dishes. Just about all of us ate more than we needed to on Thanksgiving. Some of us who skipped out on “Black Friday” shopping were still rude to people in the mall on Saturday. And most of us buying gifts for other people – if we’re really honest with ourselves – aren’t concerned so much with the person for whom we’re buying the gift as much as we’re concerned with the feeling we’ll have watching them open it. Some of us who skipped the shopping scene altogether were rude to our brothers and sisters in Christ yesterday – over an amateur football game. Almost all of us during the holidays are obsessed with consuming things, even at the expense of other people.

When I watch my son open presents at Christmas or his birthday, it’s kind of shocking to me the ways I’m actively teaching him to be dissatisfied and wanting more. Will opens one present. He’s overjoyed. He immediately starts playing with it – perfectly happy and content. But then I make him stop. I take away the toy he’s completely satisfied with . . . and I make him open another present.

The point I want to make isn’t to make you feel down about Thanksgiving or Christmas. I love this time of the year. But whether it’s November or December or any other month of the year, we are so obsessed with consuming, we are so dissatisfied with what we have, we are so concerned with ourselves and our feelings, that we neglect and harm other people in the process . . . people whom we are called to shepherd . . . even when – especially when – we sometimes think we are being thoughtful and selfless. It’s exactly when we are reaching out for that last toy we know will be adored by a child we love that we shove our neighbor out of the way.

In the garden, Eve offered the apple to Adam, thinking she was giving him a precious gift, but in doing so asked him to rebel against the Giver of all gifts. Adam, in a desire to escape the consequences of his own, free, sinful choice throws his wife under the bus by blaming her – and even blaming God. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” And for the consequences of their sin, all of creation fell into sin and death – from humans, to sheep, to grass, and even to the very ground.

God called a people out of that fall to be his own: a people who would follow in his ways, a people where God himself would be King. But these people, the sons and daughters of Jacob/Israel, didn’t want God as King. They wanted their own.

They did not even want God as their own. Time and time again they wanted to worship the things they created, idols made by their own hands, creations for their own consumption. The priests, their own leaders, looked after themselves – not the people. As the Lord says through Ezekiel earlier in chapter 34: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.

The shepherds led the people of Israel away by their selfishness. They valued their position, and the gains for themselves they could make from their position, more than they valued the sheep or even God. And that why the sheep were scattered into exile. That is why the Kingdom of Israel split into two. That is why the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria over a hundred years before this passage was written. That is why Judah, the Southern Kingdom and the audience of Ezekiel’s prophecy, was conquered by Babylon and sent into exile away from the Promised Land. The shepherds did not tend for or care for the sheep.

But God refuses to give up. And verses 11 to 16 in our passage give us God’s solution. “Behold – Look, See, Pay Attention – I, I myself, will search for my sheep and I will seek them out.” The solution for Israel is not simply better shepherds. It is certainly not for the current shepherds to simply “do better.” The wrong way to read this passage – and even the passage from Matthew we read earlier – is to read it in purely moralistic terms.

You cannot seek out the lost who are scattered – only God can. You cannot bring light to darkness – only God can. You cannot gather people and bring them into God’s own land – only God can.  You cannot feed them with good pasture, or make them lie down, or bind up the injured, or strengthen the weak, or destroy the fat and the strong – only God can.

And indeed God has.

Jesus Christ is our Shepherd and our Prince. And that is truly good news.

God does not abandon humanity or his people but becomes one of us in Jesus Christ. Like the shepherd who loses the one sheep out of a hundred, or the woman who loses one coin out of ten, it is Christ who seeks you out – who seeks out all of his lost sheep – to bring you all into his care. God does not let his sheep thirst but makes the water clean that was muddied by the dirty hooves of selfish sheep. Then washes his own in that clean water, and those who drink of that water will never thirst again. God does not leave the starving sheep to the mercy of the bullying sheep but allows himself to be slaughtered – and then gives us his own body for our bread. God does not let the sick and the injured sheep to waste away and die. He offers them his own shed blood as ointment for their wounds and a cure for their sickness.

No, the cure for Israel, scattered in exile in Babylon is not just for the shepherds to “do better.” They need a Great Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

Jesus Christ is our Shepherd. And that is truly good news.

It is easy for us to criticize them: the priests and kings and elders of Judah, the shepherds who have failed the sheep. But even as our Black Friday and holiday consumption shows us, we have trouble caring for the sheep – even within the church. It is easy for us to forget that verses 17-19, the judgement of the God here is on some of the people of God. God is not just judging the wicked shepherds but the sheep! These are sheep that are not satisfied with the good pasture God has given but tread down the rest of the pasture under foot. These are sheep that are not satisfied with God’s clean water but instead dirty the water with muddy hooves making undrinkable for everyone.

Is that what we do in the church?

How often do we understand our local congregations as flocks of sheep underneath the one Shepherd, Jesus? Or do we – as is the case all too often these days – understand our churches to be about us? Consumption in the church is a very real and very dangerous thing. I don’t know if you see it much here in this church – I’m sure you see it some – but I see it all the time in Birmingham. Anytime you do something someone doesn’t like – if a sermon rubs someone the wrong way, if you try to put up something “new” in the sanctuary, if you’re not doing some program aimed at this particular group, or if you make a change that affects that particular group – people threaten to leave the church! We look too often at Jesus coming to be our shepherd as Jesus coming to be my personal shepherd only. All I need is Jesus, my Bible, and me. Everything else is “man-made.” Everything else is “optional.”

Sisters and brothers, for those who are in Christ Jesus the Church is never optional. For the sheep gathered together by the great Shepherd, the flock is never optional. And care within the flock is not optional, either. The church cannot be a buffet style model where you take what you want, leave what you don’t, and go to some other restaurant down the street if you don’t like the menu. Because the fundamental, underlying attitude we often have about Church is that it’s all about me – my wants, my desires, my opinions, my needs being met.

And the truth of the gospel is that the Church is not about you – it’s about Jesus.

The Lord says through Ezekiel in verse 16 that he will feed the injured sheep with justice. The word here is just some abstract idea. It means the right ruling in a case, like a court decision. Too often in the church, in a desire to get what we want, we knock each other down and bully each other around. We, as verse 21 says, “push with side and shoulder and thrust the weak with horns.” We are so used to a culture that demands we get our way, that we do it within the church to the harm of the other sheep!

If you have been wronged by people within the Church, I am here to tell you today that God will feed you justice – that is, righteous judgment – to right your wrong.

And if you have wronged another in the Church, fear the judgment of God. Go and be reconciled with your sister or brother.

As I mentioned earlier, the wrong way to read this passage is a moralistic one. Israel did not need simply better shepherds or the shepherds to do better – they needed a New One . . . just as the Church needs Jesus Christ to be her Shepherd. But the other wrong way to read the passage is this – that the Shepherd is only for you. No, the Shepherd is for his whole flock, not just or even primarily you. The great privilege, joy, and satisfaction is that the flock includes you, and it includes me. But the flock is not about you or me.

And that is why the Shepherd must also be a Prince.

Jesus Christ is our Prince. And that is truly good news.

In the ancient world, one of the important duties of a king was to judge, and in judging the king would establish justice. Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the end of the church worship year, and it is our reminder that Christ reigns over all creation, the entire universe, and especially the Church.

Our Prince establishes justice.

Our Shepherd feeds us.

The two go hand in hand with one another. But our Shepherd Prince is unlike all of the shepherds and all of the princes that have ever been a part of this world. He does not seek his own glory at the expense of his subjects or his sheep! For almost every prince that has ever lived, there have been certain functions of the prince that have benefited the people. But make no mistake – the people are there to serve the prince and never the other way around. For almost every shepherd that has ever lived, there have been certain duties of the shepherd that have benefited the sheep. But make no mistake – the sheep are to provide goods, wool and meat, for the shepherd.

Yet, our Prince knelt to wash our feet. And our Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep.

Jesus Christ is our Prince and our Shepherd. And that is truly good news. Amen.

The Promise

This is part of a series of sermon manuscripts I’ve preached while traveling to other churches. For more information, see the introduction to “Preaching the Blessed Gospel.”

Below is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on October 15, 2017 (19th Sunday after Pentecost) at Coker Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Coker, AL, just west of Tuscaloosa. As with all the manuscripts I post, the actual sermon varied in places. 

Image credit: Outset Ministry


Sermon Text – Exodus 32:1-14


When we gather as church, whose promise do we trust?

God’s? Or our own?

The people of Israel had seen God’s promise in action, in ways that were so dramatic their children’s children’s children would still tell the stories. It is the same story that we, their spiritual children, are still telling 3,500 years later. They were in bondage in Egypt – and the Lord God miraculously set them free. They were chased by a Pharaoh whose heart was hardened, by an army they could not hope to defeat – until the Lord God parted a sea, and they walked over the dry land. And when they turned back to look from the far bank, they saw the Egyptian army swallowed by the collapsing walls of the sea and drowned. They were hungry in the wilderness, and the Lord God caused mana, bread from heaven, to appear on the ground for them to eat. They only had to gather it up. When they were thirsty in the parched desert, the Lord God gave them water springing out of a bone-dry rock. When they were lost, the presence of the Lord God appeared to them in pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to show them the way. And when they lacked instruction, the Lord God gave them the Ten Commandments, made an lasting covenant with them, and the people said with a single voice, “We will do everything that the Lord has commanded.

But God calls them a “stiff-necked” people.

They complain about the food that they’re provided. Before the Lord provides it through the rock, they complain about the lack of water. They complain about their deliverance; they wish that they were still alive and slaves in Egypt rather than die in the desert.

And now, at Mount Sinai, at the mountain where God is making more promises to them and giving them more instruction – they reject him. Moses is on the mountain for forty days, and they’re getting restless. They’re anxious. They’re afraid – even after all that they had seen. Because Moses had not come back, and even though they should know where he is – on the mountain! – and what he’s doing – communing with their God! – they claim they do not know what has happened to him. Their lives in Egypt as slaves were so regimented, their daily tasks all laid out by overseers, that now in their freedom any symptom of uncertainty spreads as an epidemic. The evidences of God’s presence is still around them – they saw what was going on at Sinai; they were still daily gathering the mana!

Yet their own disbelief had taken hold. “Make us gods!” they tell Aaron.

It’s not that this god they demand Aaron to make is easier to serve. They rip rings off the ears of their wives and their children and give them up freely, en masse to build it. This god they make requires sacrifice, and they willing make this sacrifice for one reason: this god is a god they can control.

This god is a god made by them.

And when the god of the golden calf is made, and they make their sacrifices, their anxiety is relieved. They “worship” – at least they think they’re worshiping. They eat. They drink. They play games. They revel.

They no longer have to wait for a God they can’t control. They’ve made a god themselves. They no longer have to wait for a leader to come down from the mountain. They have complete sway over another leader, a leader who should know better, but who follows the wills of the people rather than the will of God. Their anxieties are lifted because they’ve broken away from the God who demands they follow, and they are now eagerly charting out their own path, a path – as we see in the rest of this passage – that leads to death. They have abandoned the promise of God for the promises they’ve made to themselves.

When we gather as church, whose promise do we trust?

God’s? Or our own?

Are we less stiff-necked than they are?

There’s no doubt we have anxiety in the American church today. We look at numbers that have been declining since the 1960s. At our presbytery meeting on Friday, the moderator for the General Assembly of our denomination, the Rev. Dr. David Lancaster, pointed out this anxiety by bringing our attention to a less looked at statistic. Every year churches report numbers to the denomination, and almost every year, under the column heading for “confessions of faith,” the numbers remain “one” or “zero” for most churches. The anxiety is how are we going to “survive” when we aren’t proclaiming the gospel to the lost.

I know you feel that anxiety here, because like many churches in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, you are without a pastor. I’ve been a member of churches without pastors. I’ve sat on a pastoral nominating committee. I know the anxiety that comes without knowing who will lead the church. I know the anxiety that comes with wondering what directions the church I love will take in the future. It’s a difficult time for any body of faith. You wonder, “What will the future of Coker Cumberland Presbyterian Church be?” We wonder, “What will the future of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church be?” We wonder, “What will the future of the Church be?”

Sisters and brothers, the hard truth of this passage for us is this: beware this anxiety that we feel. It leads to idolatry. And idolatry leads to death.

It is tempting for us to say in our uncertainty, “What should we do?!” But truth is everything that is required for us to do has been spelled out for us. And in asking that question, we want to make ourselves masters of the church’s destiny, not Christ, our bridegroom. And that is idolatry.

There is nothing wrong with church programs, especially for church programs aimed at evangelism and discipleship. But when you make the mistake of thinking those programs are going to save the church, you make them into an idol. There is nothing wrong with a more contemporary style of worship. But when you think that if you don’t put up screens, or if you don’t buy a drum-set, or if you don’t make an effort to look hip or cool that the church will die! – then you’ve made that form of worship an idol.

There is nothing wrong with desiring and praying for a godly pastor to lead your church. If it were, I’d be out of job! But when you think a pastor is going to come and save your church, you’ve made a pastor your idol, and you’ve denied that your church already has a savior. I’ve seen the job descriptions churches make for pastors – I haven’t seen yours, so it may not apply here! – but I’ve seen plenty to know that the savior-pastor is exactly what so many churches are looking for. The list of requirements is long, diverse, and so much of what the church should do and must do collectively is put individually on the pastor.

And this is idolatry. These things are idolatry because, like the golden calf, it takes away the hard work of waiting, of being dependent on a God who is not you, and it allows you to be free from anxiety because you are the one who can do the work. If you follow this church-growth plan, if you change your worship style in this way, if you hire this pastor, if you build this building – all of your problems about the future of the church will have hope . . .

. . . not godly hope . . .

. . . but a hope that we can manufacture ourselves.

And hope that we can control is always the hope that we prefer – even at the expense of the true hope we have in Jesus Christ.

Church of Christ, we must not dare replace the hope we have in the promise of Christ for the hope we manufacture ourselves. Changes in style, in leadership, in method to reach a contemporary culture are not in-and-of themselves evil. I am not advocating that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church or this church here at Coker keep doing things the same way! There are many places in which I’d argue the opposite. Israel’s gold was not itself evil. The tabernacle had golden objects all over it. The rings of gold were fine when they were on the wives and children of Israel. But the minute changes in the church become the objects of our hope, we commit idolatry. And idolatry leads to death.

The last portion of this passage is notoriously difficult to understand. And I think in some ways it’s meant to be – so, I hope to let some of the tension in this passage remain. What we see in the interchange between God and Moses is a demonstration of a God who is both just and gracious. He is both righteous and loving. He is both holy and intimately connected to his people.

Their turning away should prompt him to turn away. That’s why in verse 8, God tells Moses that they are your people . . . Moses’ people . . . not God’s. The righteous requirement of God compels him to stamp out evil, to destroy it, to obliterate it because even in the very sight of the holiness and the provision of God, the people have turned inward to worship themselves.

This is certainly a time of testing for Moses, just as these are times of testing for leaders in our church.

And Moses’ response – which is so unlike most of our responses to our current problems – is to pray.

His first instinct isn’t to go down on his own. His first instinct isn’t to set things right. It isn’t to fire Aaron and hire a new priest. His first instinct isn’t to find new ways to incorporate this idolatry in their worship so that he won’t lose members. His first instinct is to pray.

He prays.

He prays reminding God of God’s own promises. And I think he prays them not so much to remind God but to remind himself. In this testing of Moses’ faith, Moses is compelled to remember God’s character. God is the righteous judge who passes the correct sentence of destruction for an idolatrous people – and then suspends the sentence. There is a dance going on here between Moses and God – a God who is indeed eternal and unchanging – that forces Moses to remember who God is and shows Moses that God truly does hear our requests. And when they are in accordance with God’s will – as Jesus taught us to pray – God’s will is indeed done.

And we know God’s will for the church.

Jesus says, “I will build my Church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Individual churches will close. Whole denominations will die. But Christ’s church will last forever because Christ wills it to! And the knowledge of this promise does not compel us to sit tight, but to work productively. To work in faithfulness. To rest, even as we work, in the full sufficiency of Jesus Christ. The saving of souls is God’s business, and God’s alone. And by his grace we are given the privilege of participating – people in pulpits and pews alike – by preaching the gospel. When he sends us out, he does not send us out alone, but God’s very Spirit dwells within us and is compelling those to whom we preach.

And when we fail, when our churches close, when we worry about the future, Christ still intercedes for us. Our Lord Jesus Christ, though he has ascended to the heavenly mountaintop, is surely coming again! Come, Lord Jesus! When we fail and follow idols, his pierced hands and feet cry out for us and on our behalf: “Look. I have bought these people, my church, for the price of my precious blood. They are mine. And the gates of hell shall not prevail.”


The Baked Potato

This series is a collection of recipes called “The Church Potluck

Growing up, my favorite place to eat out was a certain chain steak house named after a desert region in an Oceanian country that’s also its own continent . . . you can guess the one. Anyway, my third favorite item on the menu – beside the steak and the battered, deep–fried  onion – was the potato. I had never had a potato with salty crispy skin. I had never had a baked potato so fluffy. I didn’t even know what a chive was. But there they were, springing up like a grassy field on my potato . . .

For years, I wondered how to bake the perfect potato, a potato just like the ones I treasured at that restaurant. But which potato? There are so many! Do I wrap it foil?  I soon found that’s a recipe for slimy skin and soggy flesh. Well, as has been the case for so many of my culinary quandaries – Alton Brown came to my rescue. This is his potato. I’m just the messenger (with a few slight changes for personal preference). And I had the great privilege of cooking 110 of these monsters for our church membership celebration back on August 27.

Here’s how.


  • 1 russet potato*
  • oil to coat**
  • kosher salt

*Russets have the right kind of starch that yields a light, fluffy potato when cooked. They’re perfect for mashing and baking. 

**I use regular olive oil for flavor (do not use extra virgin as it might burn and would be a waste since most of the complex flavors would cook away). If you prefer, a flavor-nuetral oil like canola or vegetable would work just fine.


  • Heat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Thoroughly wash potato with cold, running water. Scrub with hands or a brush.
  • Pat potato dry.
  • With a fork, poke 3 holes on four sides for 12 holes total.*
  • Place potato in a bowl and coat lightly with oil.
  • Sprinkle potato liberally with kosher salt.
  • Line a sheet pan with foil and place it on the rack immediately below where the potato will be placed (to catch drippings).
  • Place potato directly on to the center rack of the oven above the sheet pan. DO NOT FOIL THE POTATO!**
  • Cook for 1 hour or until skin crisps and flesh is soft.
  • Keep whole until serving. Then slice open with a knife, and cut a grid into the flesh of the potato to allow butter/toppings*** to melt/fall into the flesh of the potato.

*The holes will allow steam to escape as the potato cooks. This is more about the texture of the final product than it is keeping the potato from . . . uh . . . exploding.

**The only way toward crispy skin is to keep airflow around the potato. This is why it’s placed directly on the rack. Foil not only blocks out the hot air, it keeps in moisture which makes the potato soggy.

***My favorite combo is butter, cheddar cheese, bacon bits, and chives. 




The Church Potluck: Introduction

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them:

“Come and have breakfast.”

– John 21:9-12a

Why have a church blog about food?

No one who has ever been to a Southern church potluck dwells on this question too long. Like our first century brethren before us, we know that food and fellowship go hand in hand. That’s why at the heart of Christian worship, there’s a meal.

Jesus cooked breakfast for his disciples.

And like a great many servant-leaders in our church (who’ve cooked far more meals for our members than I), one of the great privileges I’ve had while serving here is to cook. And at least some people have been kind enough (or polite enough) to ask me for some of the recipes I’ve used.  Since we have so many wonderful chefs, I thought I’d make a space on our church blog to share.

So, light the charcoal. Bake the bread and casseroles. Bring the fish.

“Come and have breakfast.”

A Year of Worship: Advent

While the world is already busy celebrating “Christmas,” the Church waits for Christ’s advent.

My sister could never wait for Christmas. She was the baby, so she always got her way – despite my disapproval as the elder brother and self-appointed guardian of “family tradition.” Opening presents on Christmas Eve after the evening service evolved into opening them before . . . and then to before lunch. One year, I think we opened some on December 23rd. Some years later, my own hypocrisy and impatience were exposed when a certain ring burned a hole in my pocket, and I caved, and I gave my then-girlfriend-now-wife her present three days before Christmas.

No one likes to wait. Waiting is surrender to someone else’s timeline.

We structure our time by our whims. Certainly, there are demands made of us and our time that we must honor. Certainly, there are circumstances that limit the control we have over our own time. Yet even the busiest among us – even those of us who are chained to schedules and alarms and calendars – reserve our right to make final decisions about how we structure our time. The world around us can offer its input, we can look to the norms of others, but ultimately, we turn up the Christmas music in October if we feel like it! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

God’s time is not our time. It is not our time in the same way that God’s ways are not our ways nor his thoughts our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) The emphasis in Scripture is not so much that God is timeless – that God stands impervious and indifferent to time. God reigns over time.

For us who serve Jesus as Lord, we acknowledge his complete Lordship over “our” time. Jesus is not simply one more demand placed on our schedules; it’s even wrong to say he’s the most important demand on our schedule. God has bought all of our time for a price, the price of his beloved Son, just as God has bought our very souls. (1 Corinthians 6:20)

The Church Year is our reminder that God is sovereign over time, that we should make “the best use” of our time (Ephesians 5:16) in a walk of holiness, and, ultimately, that God has redeemed our time through Jesus Christ. This is why the Church Year is shaped by the life of Christ himself. From birth to burial to resurrection to reign, every day of the Church Calendar is meant to fix our present eyes on the historic works of Christ so that we see him shining in eternal glory. Following the Church Year means repentance and surrender.

Advent (“coming”) is the Church’s time of penitential, hopeful waiting for God to fulfill God’s promises in Jesus Christ at the right time, his time. (Romans 5:6) It starts the Church Year as a reminder of how the faithful of Israel surrendered to God while waiting in hope for the Messiah. It is a reminder that, even today, we are eagerly waiting for Christ’s return. “Surely, he is coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

What is Your Name?

(For more information on this series, see the Introduction.)

Below is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on August 6, 2017 at Coker Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Coker, AL, just west of Tuscaloosa. (As with all the manuscripts I post, the actual sermon varied in places.) I had the privilege of preaching here several times last year as they are currently without a pastor. I had not been back since December, and it was very good to worship with this faithful congregation again.

Image credit: Edward Knippers


“What is Your Name?”

Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-32

Have you ever had a “dark night of the soul”? I’m sure for some of you, the question itself instantly takes you to a vivid memory of a particular time in your life. Maybe it happened for a whole season of your life. Maybe it was an actual night of your life, a night filled with anything and everything but sleep, a night where the dawn never seemed to come.

I’ve known a few nights like this – and, yes, pastors are by no means immune! There’s one night in particular I remember (and I won’t belabor the details now) from my time in Afghanistan as a company commander that I felt particularly anxious, and depressed, and completely alone. Those of us who have been around long enough have had one in some form or another. Maybe it was a long night spent at a hospital with a family member or a friend. Maybe it was a particular time when some sins you had kept secret finally caught up with you – and you were about to have to face some consequences. Maybe it was the night before a particular trial you kew you had to face the next day. Maybe it was a particular moment of doubt or frustration or even anger at God for some circumstance or other you had found yourself.

At the beginning of our passage today, Jacob is experiencing a dark night of the soul. It’s a night that begins with him full of anxiety, fearful that the consequences of his past actions will come to destroy him and his family. It’s a night that begins with him nervous about a particular event that he knew would happen the next day or at least very soon. It’s a night that begins with the stinging pain over a broken relationship with a family member – his own brother! – and the fear that comes with the uncertainty of how this relationship could possibly be restored – if it could be restored at all.

It is a night that ends with Jacob limping; he is permanently wounded from what would take place this night. But it is also a night that ends with Jacob receiving a blessing from God. It is a night that ends in triumph, not over God but with God. It is a night that ends in survival. And it is a night that ends with Jacob receiving a better name, a name that would mark the people of God forever.

Before his new name, Jacob was a trickster, even from birth. His mother, Rebekah, was giving birth to twins and Jacob’s brother, Esau, was coming out first. But Jacob reached out and grabbed his brother by the heel. And that’s what his name literally means, “he takes by the heel,” an idiom that means, “he deceives.” He supplants. He cheats! And almost every Genesis story of Jacob’s life in from his birth up to the scene in our text for today is about how he is able to trick or outsmart someone else, especially to the disadvantage of his brother, Esau. Even though they were twins and Jacob pulled him back, Esau was the older brother and heir since he was coming out of the womb first. But Jacob tricks Esau into selling his birthright for “a bowl of pottage” – some plain lintel stew. Later, Jacob tricks his own father, Isaac, on his deathbed! He pretends to be Esau in order to receive a blessing from his dying father and gain the inheritance that should be Esau’s.

After this episode, Esau is understandably upset! On the advice of his mother, Jacob flees to work for his uncle (and future father-in-law), Laban. Laban tricks Jacob, Jacob tricks Laban, and Jacob has to flee again. Though Laban does overtake Jacob on the road and they are able to be reconciled as family, there is one looming problem Jacob knows he must face as he journeys back home.

Esau is waiting for him.

Esau is waiting for him with a small army. And Jacob does not know if Esau – even years later – is still mad enough to kill him. And it’s not just Jacob alone anymore; it’s Jacob and his wives and his children and the great amount of wealth he’s acquired by working for Laban. Jacob devises one of his tricks to try to persuade Esau to forgive him, or at least spare him. But even Jacob knows this is not enough. He prays to the God of his father, the one true God, who has promised to bless him and who has made a covenant with Jacob (the continuation of the same covenant God made with Jacob’s father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham). Jacob prays to the only One who can help him in his time of anxiety, the One who would meet him in his “dark night of the soul”:

O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”

Jacob sends his family on ahead of him, and he remains there to pray. Alone.

And God answers his prayer by wrestling with him!

It’s okay for us to point out strangeness of this passage we’re looking at today. There are certainly some aspects of this passage that will make us ask questions, questions for which it is very hard to get satisfactory answers. Here God acts in ways I don’t think many of us expect him to act. We often talk about how God acts in mysterious ways – ways we can’t comprehend or know or understand – but in this passage, God acts very strangely. One of the things that’s particularly frustrating in our dark nights of the soul is our lack of understanding of what in the world God is doing! Why is God doing what he is doing or allowing what he is allowing? Why does God seem to be fighting me?

The strangeness of passages like this are reminders of the strangeness of God himself. The word we have for that is “holy.” God is completely other. God is God and we are not. (Thank God!) And while the knowledge that God is holy may not be comforting in and of itself . . . (Quite the opposite, actually! Jacob is amazed that he sees God face to face – and lives!) . . . when we put this knowledge that God is holy up against something else that we know, the result is deeply comforting. God is indeed completely other, completely holy. But God in Jesus Christ is completely human as well. God is holy, but God is for us. And if God is for us, who can be against us? Indeed, even in the things God does that seem strange to us, can only be for our benefit. Because God in Jesus Christ has shown us that God does not look at our dark nights of the soul from a distance, like a dad watching his kid’s wrestling match from the bleachers. In Jesus Christ God meets us, gets dirty with us, endures suffering and trials with us…

…And even wrestles with us!

For Jacob this is quite literal. Even though the text is written in the third person, the perspective is not from some narrator. The scene unfolds as if we, the readers, are Jacob. Completely alone, this mysterious man approaches Jacob, and starts fighting him! They fight all night long, which is a bout of endurance and stamina that would put Rocky Balboa to shame! The man sees that he cannot prevail – Jacob is too stubborn to give in. So the man, whom we will soon learn is God in some mysterious way, touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of socket. He does not strike – the word here doesn’t mean that. He touches. It could even be translated, “he barely touches.” The man could not overcome Jacob, but the man could displace a hip with his finger! Yet, even injured, Jacob continues the fight. He will not let go of the man. This mysterious man wants his identity to remain a secret, so he demands to be let go before the rising sun can show his face. And Jacob, knowing that he is fighting a man who is somehow more than a man, asks for a blessing.

In the narrative of Genesis, this makes perfect sense, but to us this might seem like a strange thing to ask. In the time of Genesis, a blessing meant something. (Now, it’s a hashtag on social media!) In the time of Genesis, to receive a blessing – always from someone superior to you – meant some type of material or spiritual gain for you. And in the context of this passage, that meaning might seem a little pretentious for some of us – I confess it does a little for me. In a lot of our churches we react so strongly (and rightly) against the prosperity gospel, so strongly against things that proclaim only the “good news” of health and wealth, that the idea of asking someone – especially God! – for a blessing seems maybe a little self-centered.

But here it is a marker of Jacob’s faith.

Jacob does not give up, he does not turn away, but continues to wrestle this man – continues to wrestle with God! – until he receives the blessing. The blessing he receives is not what the health and wealth gospel preaches. It is a blessing of life-long obedience that requires persistent faith. It’s a kind of faith that Eugene Peterson would call, as he does in his book on discipleship, “a long obedience in the same direction.” It is what we Cumberland Presbyterians – and other members of the Reformed tradition – call the perseverance of the saints.

Anyone who has ever participated in some kind of fighting sport – or even been in a real fight! – can tell you that only a few minutes of fighting are exhausting. That’s why these sports separate these confrontations into rounds with breaks in between. Jacob fought all night long and still did not turn aside. How is it Jacob prevailed over God? He did not abandon God but stayed tightly latched to God – even in the pain of a dislocated hip.

And in a strange way, I am convinced that the only way he could do this was because God was with him. They were fighting, certainly with one another, but the fight was also a fight together. The circumstances of Jacob’s worry, the prospect of Esau coming to kill him, faded away in the midst of this wrestling match with God.

The psalms are prayers to God that say some things that would make a good Christian blush. They express the depths of human anger, worry, depression, anxiety, and fear in a profoundly blunt way. And they are inspired by the exact same Holy Spirit that inspired the rest of Scripture. When in the depths of our human suffering it does us no good to pretend, to hide our emotions, and to act like everything is fine. That is a recipe for self-destruction. The psalms teach us – and even Jacob’s fight with God teach us – that we must turn those emotions upward and trust that God is strong enough to take it! Because he is. And though it may seem like we are struggling with God, God is not angry at us, but remains for us.

Because the real wrestling match between God and human beings was finished by the fully-human, fully-God Jesus Christ. He is God in the flesh, come to earth to help us in the dark night with the consequences of our sin came riding toward us like Esau’s army. And when we fought him and tried to kill him, he laid down his life for us willingly.

And he rose for us triumphantly.

When Jacob fought God and prevailed through his persistence, he was blessed. He was no longer named Jacob – “he deceives.” He was named Israel, “he struggles with God.” The place is renamed Peniel, “the face of God.” Because Jacob had seen God face to face and lived.

Brothers and sisters, we have seen the holy God face to face in Jesus Christ – and lived. Like Jacob, he has given us a new name. The spelling of our names may be the same, but Jesus Christ has changed forever who we are. In Jesus Christ, because of Jesus Christ, this holy God calls us, “Child!” In Jesus Christ, because of Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit of God himself in us we cry out, “Abba! Father!”

When the dark nights come, we can cry to our Father out of the depths. He has given us new hearts, new selves, new names. And though we may walk with a limp after those dark nights (and, indeed, may never lose our limps in this lifetime) we know that we are faster limping with God than we are sprinting on our own strength.

And when the dark nights come, we know that Jesus Christ, our savior and our Lord, has limped there ahead of us. Even in triumph over the grave, he still shows the wounds and scares of his wrestling with humanity. And if he names us his friend, and he does, we can know that no night – no matter how dark – will last forever. He remains here beside us, strengthening us to endure, so that we can see the blessing he has promised to give us in the morning. Amen.  

Life after Death

(For more information on this series, see the Introduction.)

Below is a sermon I preached at West Point Presbyterian Church in West Point, GA and Lebanon Presbyterian Church three miles north of Lafayette (pronounced “lah-fet” if you’re from Chambers County), AL on June 25, 2017, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. 

West Point Presbyterian is the church I attended from the time I was maybe five years until I moved to Birmingham after college. I was confirmed in this church. I was married in this church. I preached my first sermon in this church. It was founded in 1837. The “old” building straddled the Alabama-Georgia line; the pastor preached from Alabama to the congregation in Georgia. A “cyclone” destroyed the “old” building in 1920 while the elders were at a meeting, killing one. In 1923, the “new” sanctuary was built, and new additions have been made over the decades, most recently in 2014. The church is part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), though they are in the process of trying to leave and join the new ECO Presbyterians. Their pastor, the Rev. Jerry Ledbetter, grew up Baptist, was ordained Methodist, and has served this Presbyterian church since 2003 (the same year I graduated high school).  

Lebanon Presbyterian Church is a country church founded in 1843. Though the building is well kept and has several modern additions, it reminds me of some of the churches I’ve seen at Cades Cove while on vacation. I’ve only preached here once before, but it’s perhaps the most intimate place I’ve preached. They do not have an installed pastor, but Jerry frequently serves as their pulpit supply. In the middle of this service, my mind completely drew a blank during the Apostle’s Creed (which wasn’t written down) and led to what was probably the most awkward moment I’ve ever had in a worship service. I had memorized it as a child, and I have said it thousands of times from memory. But I still forgot it in the middle of leading worship . . . So, my fellow Christians, if you ever wonder why a pastor seems to be reading the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer instead of reciting it from memory – that’s why. It’s not that he or she doesn’t have them memorized; it’s that they’re too important to mess up!

Friends from HCPC – forgive me for the extended Bonhoeffer quote. Though I’ve preached it to you several times . . . I hadn’t to these good folks!


“Life after Death”

First Reading: Romans 6:1-11

Sermon Text: Matthew 10:24-39

There is a tendency in our Christian life to want to stay near the cross – but not too near. We know that we should not be like Peter who flees the cross after Jesus is arrested and denies Jesus three times. We know that – as difficult as it would be – we kind of want to be like one of the Marys or John, who stayed with Jesus until the cross.

No one wants to be the criminal crucified alongside him.

We like the hymn – and don’t get me wrong, it’s good, and it’s one of my favorites – “Jesus keep me near the cross / there a precious fountain / free to all, a healing stream / flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.” I doubt many of us have heard the one we sang earlier today: “Jesus, I my cross have taken, / all to leave and follow Thee; / destitute, despised, forsaken, / thou, from hence, my all shall be.”

We say – very rightly – that Jesus on the cross has done what none of us can do. We say – correctly – that we are reunited with God only through the cross of Jesus, his bearing of our sins on the tree as a man accursed, through his taking of our place. But too often, when we understand our salvation by grace through faith alone, we forget what John Calvin said, that “the faith that saves is never alone.” We forget what Luther said, that “idle faith is not saving faith.” Too often, when we understand that God has already done everything to save us, and that we can do nothing to save ourselves – all correct statements! – that this is an invitation to a discipleship where we do nothing.

And these misunderstandings make us scratch our heads and try to explain around very difficult passages in the New Testament like the words from Jesus this morning, or the words from Paul we heard earlier, that in our baptism we were baptized into Christ’s death. It’s hard for us to understand Paul when he says that our old self was crucified with Christ. We think Paul gets a little extreme in Galatians when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

No, we all want to be near the cross witnessing and thankful for what has happened for us and on our behalf. No one wants to be the thief – even if Jesus promises him paradise.

Because we forget the words of Jesus – who has indeed done everything for us, lest any of us should boast – that we are not greater than him. If he was slandered, persecuted, and killed, how can we think that we are immune from those things.

And that’s the gist of the three-fold analogy that Jesus uses in the beginning of our passage for today in verses 24-25. At the start of chapter 10. Jesus is getting ready to send the 12 disciples – the 12 students – out on their own. They are to go out into “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons.

Not exactly a demanding job description, is it?

But more than the difficulty of their task, Jesus tells them that they will face something that they haven’t really faced yet – persecution. Sure, the Pharisees have bad-mouthed their teacher. But how are they to understand Jesus when he says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves”? Or, “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you sin their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles?” Or “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake”? The disciples left everything to follow Jesus, but I don’t know if this is exactly what they signed up for!

Anticipating that his students might need some clarification Jesus gives them the three-fold analogy. They would have known the first from other Jewish teachers – a student can’t surpass the teacher. If the teacher has taught the student as much as he knows, and the student is like the teacher, that’s enough. The teacher has done her job. But a servant – or more precisely – a slave? They didn’t have the help from Paul’s letter to the Romans where, in chapter six, Paul explains that one is either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness. They didn’t have the help of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians that those who are freed when called are slaves to Christ. What kind of relationship exactly was Jesus describing here?

But before elaborating on that further, Jesus’ analogy goes further for the disciples. If he is the master of the house, and they are his slaves, they can’t escape the slanderous things those outside the house call their master. If they say to their noble master that he “casts out demons by the prince of demons” – as they did earlier in Matthew 9:34 – then how much more will they malign the character of those in the household of a lower class? They call Jesus a sickening name in 10:25 – Beelzebul. The pagans in the Promised Land before (and even after) the Israelites came sacrificed their children to a god named like this. Over time – since the Israelites knew there was no god other than God – the name became associated with a demon and the name was changed in order to mock him: Beelzebul – “Lord of the House” – became Beelzebub, “Lord of the Flies.” The very Son God, who had taken on flesh to become the savior of the world, who gave of himself at every turn to heal the sick, cleanse lepers, make the blind see, make the deaf hear, and proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God had come – was being told that his power wasn’t coming from God but from the demonic. How much worse would his followers hear?

Quite a bit. Because Jesus in this section isn’t just preparing them to go out on this short missionary journey – a journey where in the narrative they go out, come back, and continue to walk with Jesus. He’s preparing them for what’s going to happen after he leaves! At my church in Birmingham, the senior pastor and I are preaching through Acts. I don’t mean to spoil anything about what happens later in this story, but things don’t exactly turn out well for the disciples! Everything that Jesus says will come to pass – not just in this section, but in all of chapter 10 – it all comes to pass!

And we, disciples of Jesus Christ in the 21st century, should expect no different, even here, in a country where we are not really being persecuted for our faith. If we follow Jesus in his teaching on sexuality and marriage, we’re called “bigoted.” If we follow Jesus in his teaching that there is no salvation apart from him, we’re called “intolerant.” If we follow Jesus in his teaching that the poor actually need to be fed, and the sick actually need to be healed (even if they can’t afford it!), and the alien – the foreigner – in our midst actually need to be welcomed and not turned away . . . we’re called something you only say to your worst enemy here in the deep South – “liberal.”

Jesus did not fit into any of the preconceptions of the Pharisees, and they lashed out at him with derogatory labels, vile ones, to try to get him to shut up. And if we are truly following Jesus and what Jesus actually says in the Bible – and not just the preconceived ideas we hear bouncing off whatever echo-chambers are our favorites – then expect to be slandered.

Of course, whatever we might be called here pales in comparison to what our sisters and brothers are called in places of real persecution. There, they face death. There, they are called an infidel, or worse, an apostate, and in the minds of those precious to them, their faith in Christ as fully God and fully human is a faith straight from hell – which is where it is thought they’re headed. No, we have it tame.

But for them – and for us – the hope that we have in God is far stronger than any slander. It’s a hope that casts out all fear. And that encouragement to not be afraid is what Jesus tells the disciples in the next section of our text, in verses 26-33.

The worst the oppressors and the persecutors can do is kill our body. We fear not them but the God who can destroy our body and soul in hell. And the beautiful promise from God in Jesus Christ is that – though he is capable of destroying both and though we deserve to have both destroyed – he does the exact opposite. Persecution may come. If Jesus tarries, death will certainly come to each one of us. But the sure promise from a God who is in complete control of the entire universe is that we will have life, abundantly, forever and ever.

The same God who keeps the stars in their places across 93 billion light years not only counts but causes to grow each of the 100,000 or so hairs on your head. The same God who knows with intimate precision the daily activities of a microbe at the bottom of the Marianna Trench, at a depth a mile deeper than Mt. Everest is tall, is the same God who does not allow a little sparrow of the air – practically worthless to us – to fall to the ground without his supervision. And how much more are we worth than any sparrow? Worth so much, that God did not spare his only Son but gave him up for us all. Indeed this God, who manages the forces at work in every atom to keep them from flying apart, is not so high up or distant or busy that he is not willing to crawl around in the dirt with us, to be spat upon for us, to be whipped – for us and by us – or ultimately to die for us. Sisters and brothers, I cannot hope to describe for you how much more than sparrows you are worth to God.

How can we be afraid? With such joy in our hearts over the sovereign God’s love for us and his infinite ability to keep his promises, how can we not shout from the rooftops what he has done? How can we not proclaim in the light – in the daylight of the world outside – what we have learned in the dimness of this place under the opaque light of stained glass? If God is for us, then who can be against us?

There is such a misunderstanding of God numbering the hairs on our head or the fact that we are worth more than sparrows when we think that these signs are signs that we’re ok doing whatever it is we want to do. Too often, we think that God’s intimacy means approval of our actions; we think that because God numbers our heads that God will give us what we want.

But that’s not the purpose of Jesus’ saying here. He doesn’t want to just make us comfortable and happy with this knowledge. He wants us to talk about Jesus Christ who makes our comfort possible! The knowledge of God’s provision is not for our mere happiness but to give us the joy to proclaim the goodness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit in all circumstances – happy or not.

We may not face active persecution like our sisters and brothers around the world, but we are not above it. And if that day comes – and if you find yourself in that circumstance like Jesus and the disciples and so many of our brothers and sisters right now where you might have to lay down your life for your faith – know that as you proclaim Jesus your hairs are numbered and your life is kept forever by God. Take heart. Do not be afraid regardless of the circumstance. Do not deny Jesus, but confess him – today and every day – with the sure knowledge that when the time comes, he will confess you before the Father. And the One who keeps your body and soul forever in the life of the resurrected Christ will not let you be put to shame. The worst they can do is kill the body.

And you’ve been dead already before.

In the last section of our text, vv. 34-39, Jesus lays out the cost of our discipleship. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, a few years before he laid down his life for the cause of Christ, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We so often talk about the new life we have in Jesus Christ, we overlook the many times in the New Testament where this life comes by death. Christ’s own death is primary, of course. But it is a death in which we must participate if we are to be his disciples. For the Christian, life after death is the here and now – not someplace else in the future.

As Paul says, in our baptisms we have already died with Christ and been raised with Christ! I make fun of Amy way too much for being a former Baptist. But this is something that the Baptists get in their celebration of their namesake sacrament that we Presbyterians often miss. Baptism – regardless of age (that’s where my Presbyterian credentials kick back in!) – is the sign of dying with Christ and rising with him to new life. The glory that our spirits experience in heaven after the death of our physical bodies, and the joy of the new life to come after the resurrection when spirit and body are reunited – certain hopes for us as Christians – are not “life after death” experiences. Instead they are, as N.T. Wright would call them, “life after life after death” experiences. We are experiencing right now the life after death that comes from Christ’s resurrection. We need not fear death because we have died before.

The sword that Jesus brings is the sword in this passage is the sword that cuts away our new life from the old. I don’t know a lot about butchery. My papa was a butcher, my dad butchers his own deer, but I’m no expert. Yet as someone learning how to cook and prepare cuts of meat for cooking, I know that a knife can be a friend, not an enemy. Silver skin has to be removed. Fat sometimes needs trimming. And just so, the old person needs to be cut away from the new. The remnants of the old life have to be separated by Jesus with a sword.

We view Jesus’ talk about the separation from family as a bit hyperbolic, a bit extreme – maybe even metaphorical. But there is no metaphor for the disciples here. Like Jesus himself, they have family members who have abandoned them for following Jesus. In this country, we think about leaving father or mother or son or daughter metaphorically. For our sisters and brothers facing persecution right now, they – like the disciples – understand it literally. Because there are places in this world where brother will stone to death a sister for becoming a Christian.

And as Christians, though we have clear responsibilities to love and care for our families from other places in Scripture, Jesus claims our primary loyalty. He comes before our families. He comes before our family because he is our true family. And the intimacy that we share with God through Jesus Christ is greater than even the intimacy shared between husband and wife or mother and son (great as that intimacy is)!

Because whoever finds his life will destroy it, and whoever destroys his life for Christ’s sake will find it. The cross Jesus commands us to take up is indeed a reference to a structure like the one that would kill him. It is the same word here as in the passages describing Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a word the disciples would have known the meaning of all too well – a device of torture and death used by the Romans to execute their fellow Jews.

For us, it is the reminder that we die to our old selves. It is the reminder – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say – that the grace that saves us is not cheap. Our whole lives are claimed by God.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes,

“[If] the Christian rests content in his worldliness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world. He is doing it for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace. Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace–for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “Ye were bought at a price.” And what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”

The grace that saves is never cheap. But it tells us that we are worth more than many sparrows. Do not fear, but take up your cross, today and every day, to follow Jesus. Go and proclaim the wonderful news of Jesus Christ who has brought us from death to life. Amen.