2 Chronicles 16:9 says, “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” But how can we know the condition of our hearts? This short video looks at three diagnostics that Jesus gives us:
Here’s the first sermon in our new “Underdogs” series:
Okay so the title was a bit of a tease, but at least you’re reading. Here’s my beef with seminaries today (I understand most of you reading this aren’t preachers, so we’ll chalk up this blog post to #PreacherProblems). The overwhelming way they are training new pastors to preach is verse-by-verse. (This approach preaches through an entire book of the Bible verse-by-verse, then picks another one and preaches through that. This style is in contrast with ‘topical,’ where preachers take a topic or theme and preach about it from Scripture). Verse-by-verse is the latest rage. I recently had a conversation with a seminary student on his preaching style. He said that he preached verse-by-verse, because that was the safest way to preach the totality of God’s word. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Noted theologian John MacArthur was subtle enough to write on the merits of verse-by-verse preaching and name his book “How to Preach Biblically.” Case settled, right?
My beef with verse-by-verse isn’t its form or function (I’m actually preaching verse-by-verse through Ephesians this summer, the first time I’ve preached verse-by-verse at Mt Vernon). My beef is the prevailing mindset coming from seminaries today that assumes that verse-by-verse is the only true way to preach, and all of us ‘topical’ guys are somehow mishandling the Word of God.
Here’s what I would say to that mindset: we never see Jesus preaching verse-by-verse. From our records in the gospels, Jesus was a straight ‘topical’ guy. You never see Jesus taking his disciples on a verse-by-verse exposition through the book of Leviticus. Rather, he’d pluck a verse or two from Old Testament scripture (Luke 4:18-19 is a good example) and expound on that. Even more frustrating for verse-by-verse folks, sometimes Jesus would teach simply by using stories (parables) with no Scripture involved. By today’s seminary standards, Jesus would have been a horrible preacher, reckless with Scripture and too cavalier in handling the holy texts. But as sacrilegious as it sounds, Jesus’ number one preaching goal wasn’t a verse-by-verse exposition of the Scriptures of the day. It was to teach people about and introduce people to his Heavenly Father. Jesus wasn’t a slave to verse-by-verse exposition, and neither should we be today.
QUESTION: Is there a ‘best’ way to preach? What’s your preferred style?
Full disclosure: I consider myself a Republican. I don’t delude myself into thinking that the Republican party is by any means infallible, but their emphasis on fiscal responsibility and smaller government is the best hope to save America from the entitlement/welfare state that will bankrupt us in my lifetime. But I digress.
More than being a Republican, I am a Christian. I should be a perfect candidate for the Religious Right, a political faction built on conservative/biblical values. But I never have considered myself a part of that voting demographic. Why? I truly think the Religious Right would have hated Jesus if he lived today. Now, I am the first to admit that I might be wrong (and those in the Religious Right will be quick to point out faults because that is one of their less than desirable calling cards). If I’m a Christian, then I’m supposed to vote Republican. And not just Republican, but conservative Republican. Surely Jesus would have been a Republican. He probably would have been a card-carrying Tea Partier as well. I just received a card in the mail from my religious denomination subtly telling me who I should vote for by ranking the candidates “conservativeness.” Surprisingly enough I’m supposed to vote all Tea Party candidates. I’m most likely going to vote for the other guy just because the Religious Right is attempting to dictate my vote.
The premise behind the Religious Right is to legislate morality. Vote the right people into office and they will enact laws that will dictate a biblical culture on the entire country. Think of it as a Christianized version of Sharia law. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a conservative that espouses conservative values, but the idea of legislating morality on others misses the entire point of the gospel. Our Kingdom is not of this world. Our mission is to make disciples, not control the legislature.
Where do I get the audacity to make this assumption that today’s Religious Right would have hated Jesus? The Religious Right existed in Jesus’ day. They were known as the Pharisees. They were the ultra-religious who enforced their version of spirituality on the populace at large. It was suffocating. When you look in the gospels, you’ll find Jesus fighting with the Religious Right of his day more than anyone else.
I think if Jesus lived today he would infuriate the Religious Right. He’d be too unpredictable. He’d advocate conservative values but then you’d see him hanging out with liberals and homosexuals (the ‘sinners’ and ‘tax collectors’ of his day). Some his disciples would even be Democrats (gasp!). The Religious Right would attempt to dictate his beliefs and he’d refuse to be manipulated by a narrative looking for power. At the end of the day, he would refuse to help them gain political control, because his Kingdom is not of this world. And they would try and take him down for not being ‘conservative’ enough.
QUESTIONS: Thoughts? Let’s get the debate going!
Yesterday I shared about a recent conversation I had with a woman where I had the opportunity to practice what I preach in the most uncomfortable fashion. While sharing the good news of grace and forgiveness from John 8 (the story of the woman caught in adultery), Leslie* asked if she could ever be forgiven because she was a lesbian and didn’t want to change.
The easiest thing to do would have been to give into the temptation that too many evangelicals fall into: sweeping judgment and condemnation. But I had literally just shared about how Jesus offered grace to a woman caught up in sin. Was the sin of homosexuality outside the bounds of God’s grace? What’s more, I knew Leslie. I liked Leslie. We had built a relationship. She wasn’t an abstract idea I was judging from a safe distance. She was a human being, filled with inherent worth, sitting five feet from me. It’s easy to judge someone you don’t know and condemn a community with whom you have no relationship. But what if it’s someone you know and care for? (And let me beat some of you to the punch. You might counter, “But Leslie is unrepentant! She has to repent of her godless lifestyle before she can be forgiven!” Look in John 8. We have no biblical record of the adulterous woman repenting or showing any remorse. Lack of repentance isn’t a good rationale for judgment and condemnation.)
Here’s how I responded to her and the entire group of ladies I was sharing with that day:
- I acknowledged the reality that homosexuality is seen as the ‘unforgivable sin’ in churches today. They already know that and sense that. Leslie shared that her church friends communicated that to her, so there was no use in me denying it. I apologized on the church’s behalf for elevating that one sin above all others when we have no biblical right to do so.
- I reaffirmed that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is sinful. There is no way around it. To teach otherwise would be to try and do theological gymnastics around passages that teach on this subject pretty clearly.
- I also acknowledged that my job as a preacher wasn’t to teach what was popular or culturally acceptable, but to be faithful to the Bible. I realize that the biblical teaching on homosexuality is increasingly unpopular today. I know that this will be one of the defining battlegrounds for the church in my generation. But my call was never to be popular. My call was to preach God’s Word.
- Should the Bible be modified as civilization progresses and we become more ‘tolerant?’ I don’t dare make the prideful assumption that I know more than God. Some churches have embraced the homosexual lifestyle by cutting and pasting around sections of the Bible they don’t agree with. As uncomfortable and unpopular as the Bible’s teachings may be at times, I dare not assume that I know more than God. That is a slippery slope that never ends well.
- I told Leslie that as a practicing homosexual, I would treat her like all the other sinners that show up at my church each week. In my eyes, she would be just like the liars, cheaters, gossipers and adulterers that fill the church each week. She would be like every other person sitting in that sanctuary: a sinner in need of forgiveness. I would love her and befriend her and value her like I value everyone else that comes to my church. Homosexuality is a sin, but it’s not the ‘unforgivable sin.’
- What I really tried to do was to get Leslie to look at how Jesus interacted with sinners in the gospels. He took a strong stand for truth and didn’t back down to popular demands, yet at the same time sinners loved hanging around him. That is the balance we all need to embody: grace and truth.
- I told her I hoped that she would consider Mt Vernon a safe place to explore her faith. I do not believe she is a Christian. I told her that for me, her homosexual lifestyle wasn’t my primary concern. I want her to give her life to Jesus. Once she does that, the Holy Spirit can begin to change her from the inside out. My job as a pastor isn’t to ‘cure’ her of her homosexuality. It’s to introduce her to Jesus.
It wasn’t the easiest conversation, but I tried my hardest to speak to her how I believe Jesus would have spoken to her. I didn’t condone her sin, yet at the same time I didn’t condemn her.
QUESTION: How would you have answered her?
Recently I got a chance to practice what I preach in the most unusual and uncomfortable fashion. One of the great privileges I have is working with a group of ladies at an in-treatment facility center in Columbus who are dealing with a host of addiction issues. One of the things I try and do is help the ladies dig deeper underneath their addiction to discover what’s really driving it. We’ve talked through traumatic events, bad-guy boyfriends, abortions, abusive homes, you name it.
One of the ladies at the facility for the past few months (we’ll call her “Leslie”) has been a tough nut to crack. She shows no emotion. She doesn’t talk. The most I’ve been able to get out of her is that she doesn’t go to church. She seems to be still deciding whether recovery is for her. Recently I was leading the ladies through the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman in John 8:1-11. It’s a classic story of grace and forgiveness, perfect for a group of ladies who are dealing with guilt and shame.
During a question and answer time afterwards, Leslie spoke up unsolicited for the first time in two months (believe me I’d tried my hardest to get her to engage). She put the core truths of that story to the test. She said, “Is it true that you can’t be forgiven if you don’t want to change because that’s what my friends told me because I’m a lesbian.” And . . . things . . . got . . . weird.
Maybe it was just me. There’s no reason why it should have gotten weird. We had literally been discussing abortion, self-mutilation and crack cocaine in the previous ten minutes. If there’s an issue out there, these girls have lived through it. But homosexuality, that’s the ‘unforgivable’ sin for evangelicals today. Adultery is frowned upon, alcoholism is scoffed at, but homosexuality is, well, just read the newspapers. Watch the culture war being raged between the church and society over tolerance and acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle.
Leslie’s quiet, but she knew what she was doing. She dropped that bomb on me to see how the preacher would react. If God forgave the adulterous woman, what about her? Did John 8 apply to her, or is homosexuality the ‘unforgivable’ sin? After Leslie threw that grenade into the middle of the room, the entire dynamic of the conversation shifted. They didn’t want to know about dinosaurs anymore (yes, that was a previous question), they wanted to know why the Bible was so out of touch with modern culture and why it condemned a lifestyle that everyone else seems to accept. If Jesus was so ‘loving’ and ‘forgiving’ (as they put it), why would he be so hateful to condemn the homosexual lifestyle? Especially if it’s something that you’re ‘born with’?
My response was . . . what I’m going to write about tomorrow. Stay tuned!!!
In John 3, Jesus gives us one of the most commonly used terms to describe a Christ follower: “born again.” But what does it really mean to be ‘born again?’ Watch this short video as my daughter helps me explain.
In John 5 there’s a verse that puzzled me for years. One of the times Jesus entered Jerusalem, he encountered a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. What he asks this man almost seems insulting at first: “When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’” (John 5:6). Was this a rhetorical question? Was Jesus mocking him? Why would this man not want to get better? Shouldn’t it be obvious?
But as I got older and I began to interact with more people in ministry, I realized the penetrating nature of this question. Sometimes people who are sick don’t want to get better. Sometimes people who need to make a change are unwilling to do so. You’ve lived through this. You have a family member. You have a close friend. You know they need to change. You’ve had an intervention where you’ve pleaded with them to get help for something. In a moment of clarity they’ve even admitted that they need to change. And yet they haven’t. They’re not ready to get well. They’re comfortable in their brokenness. It’s painful, but it’s what they know. They’re not ready to make a change.
Before you rehash old arguments and get angry at your family all over again, stop for a moment and ask yourself this same question: do you want to get well? What area in your life do you know you need to change? What habit or addiction has your family pleaded with you time and time again to change? In what area have you been unwilling to fully surrender to God and make a change?
Like the man who had lived with a debilitating condition for 38 years, Jesus still asks you, “Do you want to get well?”
Well, do you?
The first time I truly encountered hopelessness was in the mid-90s. To be honest, I’d had an idyllic childhood growing up: strong family, good education, great Christian college. The summer after my freshmen year in college I went on a mission trip to Russia. “Culture shock” was an extreme understatement to describe what happened when my worldview was shattered once and for all.
I remember walking through the airport in St. Petersburg, noticing the layer of grime and neglect that seemed to cover everything. But it’s the subway where I truly encountered hopelessness for the first time. Now, I’ve been on many subways in many different parts of the world. They all feel a little similar. Everyone usually keeps to themselves. But this was different. I wasn’t prepared for the hollowed out vacant stares, the absolutely expressionless faces, the catacomb-like quietness. Despair hovered over us like a suffocating blanket.
Being in Russia for a month, I saw a glimpse of the world through their eyes. Their government was corrupt, taking more than it was giving. Their economy was in shambles with no constant accept for volatility. There was little beauty to be found as millions of people lived in drab, utilitarian apartments. The worst aspect was that after decades of communistic rule, atheism was king and religion was dead. These people had no hope for this life and no hope for the next.
Coming back to the States, I began to see hopelessness all around me, as friends would share their stories of growing up in alcoholic, abusive, or broken homes. As a youth pastor, I saw teenagers trapped in hopeless situations time and time again.
The longer I live and the more I pastor, the more I’m convinced that hope is the most valuable commodity in the world. With hope, you can endure anything. You can suffer through tragedy, you can cope with loss, you can sacrifice for the greater good. But without hope, you’re lost. We can live without many things in life, but I’m convinced that we can’t truly live without hope.
QUESTION: How has hope helped you through a difficult situation?