Gifted folks and doubters come to the same place

Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching on probably my favorite passage in the bible. If you want to listen to “Take these broken wings” (named after the Mister Mister song, not the Beattles song), here is the link. Mark 9:14-29 depicts a man deeply struggling to believe Jesus can and will heal his child. The kicker is that the man already gave the disciples a shot and it didn’t work. So cue the unbelief, plus the unbelief that may have already been present. The hope of the passage is that Jesus isn’t offended. He doesn’t run, shun, or gun him down. Instead he says to the father, “Bring the child to me.” And when the situation only gets worse with the demon making the kid squirm like a fish out of water, the doubt hits an all time high. Yet Jesus stays around, he doesn’t run, gun, or shun. The man prays to Jesus, “I believe, help m unbelief!” And immediately Jesus answers. How cool. I’ll never get tired of this passage. Ever. Because I feel like I always need it. 

One thing I couldn’t get into with the sermon based upon time was the curious answer as to why the disciples couldn’t cast out the demon. It’s the simplicity of the answer that is so confusing: “this kind can be driven out only by prayer.” So the big dog demons take prayer, while the other ones simply require the invocation of Jesus name? Did the disciples not pray? 

We’re not privy to all the information, and I read two different commentaries which in essence provided two different explanations. Here’s my take and its application today.

The disciples regularly cast out demons. Regularly. They were gifted at tossing out demons. They could have put that on a resume (I’m sure it would have been helpful for some job back then…..). But I think Jesus is telling them that giftedness is no substitute for completely dependent prayer. For complete dependence. Now He is not trying to get them to deny their giftedness-provided that they realize where the gifts come from-for that is false humility. Instead he is reminding them that giftedness alone will only get you so far. Your ultimate strength will never be found in your own gifts or abilities but in complete dependence upon the power of the Spirit. Zecheriah reminded Zerubbabel, “Not by might or power but my Spirit. (Zech 4:6) I think Jesus is doing the same thing here when he privately teaches the disciples. 

What I’ve come to really appreciate about this passage is the juxtaposition of unbelief and perhaps over-confidence. We take both our unbelief and our skills/gifts to Jesus in dependent prayer. Can you do something with our gifts? Jesus says yes. Can you do something with our lack of faith, doubt, and even lack of gifts? Jesus says yes.

Gifting gets you somewhere but there is always a cap. Even faith gets you only so far, as there is a cap on that too. Whether you feel like you have lots of faith or numbers of gifts, remember the source of both is Jesus. Don’t forget to come to him in dependent prayer. And even when you think its too late, remember, it is not. 

Why are Angry Birds so Angry?

I recently preached a sermon on anger from the Sermon on the mount (Matt 5:21-26) called “Why are Angry Birds so Angry?” Afterwards I experienced great encouragement from the seriousness at which folks began to take their anger. Obviously I hoped, and preached to this end: that they would be motivated by the supreme demonstration of Jesus’ love, his taking their place at the judgment seat, council, and cross. 

Several folks asked me some great questions. Here are some of my brief-but now expanded-thoughts and responses, as well as questions I would have asked myself (I know that sounds a bit weird, but just go with me there if you would).

I didn’t realize how much of an angry person I was. Should I stop using the word “Idiot?’

I loved her honesty. Now I reminded her that the main problem is anger in the heart. Jesus is reminding us that words can be used as weapons to harm people just as harboring anger in the heart can be used to make others pay. Next, “idiot” is not used here, but the Aramaic “raca,” (which has since fallen out of popularity). So whether you call someone a fool, idiot, dumba#$, or whatever, the heart issue is the same. Finding a replacement word is not the issue, but recognizing the need for a heart transplant. Fortunately we have that promise in Jeremiah 31.

Anger also comes from self-righteousness

I posited as one of the main causes of anger is that something we need or something we feel we deserve has been taken away from us. Then I proposed 4 possibilities for exactly what those idols could be: convenience, power, respect, opportunity. Identifying these idols and beginning to more deeply believe the gospel has been very helpful for me. I’ve a long way to go and I’ll actually never arrive until I’m safely in Jesus’ arms. But there is hope, forgiveness and love from Him the whole up-and-down journey.

In the interest of time, attention, and retention, I focused on these idols. However I feel that after talking with a few folks, I could have also further developed the self-righteousness angle. If you check out some angry responses from bible, you will see that self-righteousness leads to anger. So if we are regularly angry, that is an issue we need to explore.

The Older of the Prodigal Sons, becomes very angry when the Father celebrates and gives a robe to the Younger son. Nothing has been taken from him, but something has definitely been withheld. He feels he is owed something whereas the younger “unrighteous” brother shouldn’t be given anything. Much the opposite. Why? Because he claims, “All these years, I have served you and I’ve never received anything like this!” Self-righteousness is the root of his anger.

We see something similar in Jonah. Clearly there are forgiveness issues (the Assyrians were really ruthless), but Jonah is hoping only for punishment because these people deserve punishment. God shows mercy instead of judgment and Jonah gets angry. 

Several people expressed to me some of their issues and what seemed to make them angry.

One lad indicated that he felt perfectionism might be behind his anger. He seemed to become most angry when people didn’t live up to his perfectionistic expectations. Another gal seemed to be most angry when driving, but it had nothing to do with others inconveniencing her. It had nothing to do with others disrespecting her. In fact she was angry because of safety issues. 

The first guy will have to continually remember that he is actually quite an imperfect mess. He will also have to realize that others may not live up to his expectations, but that he ultimately doesn’t need them to do so. 

The 2nd gal will have to recognize that her driving may not be as good as she thinks. Perhaps remembering times where God has graciously spared her an accident could help deal with her self-righteous driving record? Perhaps considering other areas she is weak in can help to deal with an over-all sense of self-righteousness, particularly when she gets behind the wheel.

No quick fixes, just community-involved journeys of repentance and faith.

I’m thankful to have had such honest conversations. In the words of Paul Tripp’s Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer, “a person in need of change helping people in need of change.” And vice versa of course.

A thinking message or an altar call?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the chapel of a local Christian school. I spoke on one of my favorite passages, Mark 9, explaining that Jesus can do something with our unbelief when we bring it to him. Before the chapel started, the bloke in charge asked me if there would be an “altar call” or if I was planning on “leaving them something to think about?” An altar call or a thinking message…
Who knew those were my two options?
Instead of explaining my take on altar calls, I politely (maybe I’ll get asked back) said, “It will be a ‘thinking message.'”
I won’t go into my thoughts on the 19th century invention of the altar call, as I’ve already done so here. But I do want to explore the question this man asked.
Should a sermon or a talk leave people with something to think about or should it call them to action? I think the answer is probably a qualified “yes.”
1.) Thinking. Of course, leave it to a Presbyterian to affirm the thinking part of a sermon…But people do need to understand what the passage in context really says, what it means, and why believing that passage makes a practical difference in life. Ideally, I want folks leaving a sermon thinking more and more about the passage, how it points us to the gospel, and how our lives will change because we’ve personally embraced that truth. You never want a, “Well now I know all there is to know about that passage and how it relates to Jesus and how I’ve already changed….” If the roots keep getting deeper, the fruit will become that much more evident.
2.) Response. One of my favorite pastors, and former professor Steve Brown, always (I think he still does) concludes his sermons with “you think about that.” He doesn’t mean for you to simply think, but to respond to the gospel. A good sermon always calls for some response. Now perhaps that response is one that no one sees. Perhaps it is a call to awe and wonder at the majesty of God. That is still a legitimate response, and one that is quite necessary when preachers like myself can emphasize God’s immanence at the expense of His transcendence. Now I can call people to come down an aisle and commit to being more in awe of God, or I can preach about His faithful character and say something like, “Now doesn’t this move us to awe?” I choose the latter.
Our sermon passage yesterday was on Psalm 92, which is a thanksgiving psalm. The main application Barret left us with was to make sure we focus on the giver more than the gift. No one may necessarily see that, but if by faith we respond, folks will eventually see a difference. They will never see us become angry if the building isn’t being used exactly as we want it. 
Sometimes the response to a sermon may appear more active. It may mean that after you understand the “why,” you feel the need to respond by seeking forgiveness from someone you have wronged. It might mean that you spend time with your spouse next Friday night. It might mean that as a result of believing the gospel, you consider tithing, or supporting a missionary. It could mean that you become part of a church plant or stay at your existing church.  Both are active responses. You don’t need to “come on down” in order to respond. 
But neither should you simply think about what’s been said and conclude with, “That was a good sermon. I liked it.” 

A good sermon challenges the head, the heart, and the hands. However, the preacher may emphasize a response aimed at one of these areas more than the other.

I like my women a little on the trashy side

Yesterday I preached a sermon called “A Scandalous Christmas.” The title change was a last minute change from my previous title: “I like mine a little on the trashy side.” I had three people very close to me encourage in me that direction. Since I figured I could have been wrong to unnecessarily offend folks, I willingly, though somewhat begrudgingly, changed it.
And I’m glad I did. But what ended up being more controversial than the song-I still referenced the song “The Trashy Side”-was the fact that I attributed it to George Straight instead of Confederate Railroad. That might be the last country song reference I make. If I do, I will be sure to google its origin!
I first heard this passage preached-actually the only time I’ve heard it preached at mega-church Northland in Orlando, FL. I was in seminary at that time, perhaps 7 or 8 years ago. I couldn’t believe how scandalous the genealogy really was. God didn’t shy away from the scandalous and would use people such as I in His plan of redemption.
Then I forgot about the message. I don’t think I necessarily ignored or forgot the truth altogether. But in some sense it didn’t seem to resonate as much. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to preach during the advent season and even on Xmas Eve (this Xmas will be my first time preaching on Xmas Sunday), but never even thought about the passage again.
I don’t think this is all that abnormal. While its not abnormal to forget such a passage as this, it is terrible.
Let me explain. We realize that our lives are messed up and sinful. Some of us look worse than others on the outside-though we’re all in the same boat in reality. Then God says, “I can forgive your past, present, future, and offer you my righteousness in place of your sin and trash.” And we’re declared righteous and holy.
Then our life changes a bit, and we think we really ARE righteous and holy. We forget that we are DECLARED righteous and holy NOW, but that one day we will BE righteous and holy. But not now.
Someone told me that he preached this passage for Mother’s Day and got quite an uproar from the church. Perhaps it wasn’t the best timing on Mother’s Day? But people get really offended when you talk about God’s love for trashy people. And its God’s people who seem to get most offended.
They forget how trashy they really are. Jesus is just as offensive to religious people as he is to irreligious people. As much as it might make us uncomfortable, we have to talk about God’s love for those who are, according to the world’s as well as the church’s eyes, trashy. If we never talk about such people (and thus keep everyone feeling good and comfortable), we will never believe the truth that by faith God STILL washes such people. Prostitutes, adulterous, murderous people do by faith enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (I Cor 6:9-11). If we never talk about such folks, we will very quickly forget this truth.
When we’re offended by the mention of God’s love for prostitutes, adulterers, murderers, all of which he clearly displays in the scripture, then we can rest assured it’s not out of an elevated concern for God’s Holiness, but an idolatrous celebration of our own.
God doesn’t stop showing love for trashy people even though His people, including myself, often have. But this Xmas, remember your Savior entered the trash to save-and continue to save-trashy people. And his character doesn’t change. 
God does like His women and men a little on the trashy side.

What your car says about you?

Yesterday I peached a sermon called “Walk Like an Egyptian” on Phil 3:13-21, focusing on what it looks like to walk as an enemy of the cross of Christ, and how we are to walk as Christians: like imperfect citizens of heaven. Since Paul explains in this passage that people’s “walks” display something about what they truly believe (even if they wouldn’t profess something unorthodox about the cross), I chose to intro with a few examples of “what your car says about you.” I only had time for a few, so if you would like to see the ones that “didn’t make the cut,” here they are.
My personal favorite is probably the Lincoln Town Car: “I live for bingo and the potluck suppers.” This list is probably 15 years old, so keep that in mind.

If you want to listen to the sermon, here it is.

How to learn from Israel without pride: A Lesson from Pimps and Preachers’ Paul Thorn

This past Sunday I preached “Gripes Go up” on Philippians 2:14-18 which speaks of doing all things without “grumbling or questioning” so that we would shine like lights in our “crooked and twisted” generation. So in other words, one way (not the only way) we witness is actually without using words at all: without griping, tantamount to a verbal expression of an inward disbelief in the gospel. 
And we know what griping looks like, not so much because we see so many examples of this Philippian congregation griping, but because we see what griping looked like with Israel in their wilderness wanderings. Israel in other places in the N. T., become examples of how not to live, or rather more appropriately, how not to believe.
1 Corinthians 10:6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.
So we are to take advantage and learn from others’ mistakes in OT church history, in this case (Phil 2:14) faithless griping, and instead find ourselves “holding fast to the word of life.”
But how do we look upon the failures of others without becoming prideful? Looking at mistakes in others and then becoming prideful go together like summertime and humidity.
Noisetrade has been one of my dear friends for getting music (I appreciate the convenience and legality of it, which in regard to the latter, Christians in my generation don’t care too much about anymore for some reason) by more obscure or up-and-coming indie/rock/folk singers. Joe Thorn sings about griping in “You’re not the only one.” Look how he responds to hearing his neighbors fighting.
I can’t believe how much they fuss, sometimes they sound just like us.

Thorn gives us a helpful hermeneutic of humility useful when reflecting back upon the faithless griping of ancient Israel. Sometimes they, and others who don’t believe the gospel, “sound just like us.” We can see our lack of faith in others’ lack of faith. We have to. That’s why the gospel is not a ladder that you need for a little while, but a beach for all ages you never outgrow. The gospel both humbles and grows us in grace at the same time. Thanks Joe for helping me see that. What would you expect from a guy whose most recent album is entitled Pimps and Preachers?