Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 is a tough passage to preach on unless you’re a Calvinist because basically it says that some people will always be weeds who have been planted by the devil that God leaves alone until the end of time when He throws them all into hell. Now a lot of preachers cheat when they get stuck with this passage by trying to make the weeds into bad “attitudes” or “feelings” in a community rather than actual people, but that doesn’t square with the explanation of the parable that Jesus shares in verses 36-43. I decided not to cheat, but to really wrestle with this text when I had to preach on it a week ago. And my wrestling yielded some fruit. I wanted to share some Greek words and phrases in Jesus’ explanation of the parable that offer a helpful explanation of who God weeds out of His kingdom and why. Continue reading
I really was trying to stay out of trouble by sticking to the daily office readings as the source of my blog material for a little while. But the daily office reading for today, Romans 14:13-23, is filled with trouble, because in verse 14, Paul says something that sounds morally relativistic, and usually the more that Christians love Paul, the more they hate moral relativism. Here it is: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Now I know somebody will say dismissively that Paul was just talking about sacrificial meat which has nothing to do with anything we deal with today (he doesn’t really mean “nothing” when he says “nothing is unclean” just like his “all” isn’t really “all” when he’s talking about grace). But why not confront this statement in its full radical nakedness? Because Paul seems to say pretty plainly that our perception of our actions is what makes them clean or unclean. And if that’s not relativistic, I’m not sure what is. Continue reading
Sermon for 5/21/2011
Text: 1 Peter 2:1-10
At our Change the World event last weekend, we had a real deal Christian rock band here to close things out. But the problem with hosting a hard rock band in your acoustically challenged sanctuary is that rock musicians’ amps have only one setting – LOUD! We had about 100 people in the sanctuary at the end of our event, but a lot of them weren’t exactly hard rockers (some folks my mom’s age as well as parents of very small children). So the band’s first song blew all but maybe 15 people out of the sanctuary. It was really sweet how the pews were throbbing with the bass and that something taboo was happening in church. But I felt really bad for the band because I’ve had a similar experience before. I once forced a coffeehouse in Dothan, Alabama to close down early because I drove their customers away.
For what it’s worth, the band was really good; I bought their CD and I’ve been jamming to it in my car. I think our experience this Saturday is a helpful metaphor for the way that sometimes we drive people out of the room through how we share the gospel. When I was a freshman at the University of Virginia, I went around campus handing out pamphlets I had made to try to convert people to Christianity. I imagine that if I handed you what I wrote back then, this room would get empty pretty quickly. I thought the most important thing about the gospel was that I was right and other people were wrong. 1 Peter 2 says that Jesus is like a rock that some people trip over and other people make the cornerstone for their lives. In my brief sidewalk evangelist career, my pamphlets were like Jesus rocks that I kicked at other people to make them stumble so they could convert to my way of thinking. I didn’t realize that I was the one who was tripping over Jesus.
One of the ironies of the Christian journey is that the newer we are in our walk, the more we think we know everything. Or at least that’s how I was at 19 years old. Now the swagger that some of us have as young Christians actually has a good source that just needs to be redirected. When we accept Jesus into our hearts and experience the Holy Spirit in our lives, it should be exciting to realize that we’re part of a new reality in which God can do anything. It’s appropriate to be fired up and want to tell the rest of the world about how God has transformed our lives and how He wants to transform the lives of everyone we meet. Still there’s one thing we need to remember not just when we’re new at this game but even those of us who have been on the road with Jesus for many years and that is that we’re all just babies who need God’s milk to grow into our salvation.
Notice that Peter says we “grow into” salvation. Most of us don’t think of salvation as a process; we think it’s something that happens in a flash. We say some prayer in which we officially tell God sorry for our sins and ask Jesus into our hearts, or maybe we say “I do, I do, I do, I will,” in response to a series of questions like the confirmands will be doing tomorrow morning. And then a switch gets flipped, our name gets written in the book of life, and we’re on the winning team so that we can talk smack to all the losers who will get left behind when God zaps us up into heaven. How many of y’all have heard of this thing called rapture? It’s the belief of some Christians that God will beam us out when the world’s about to end. According to Christian radio host Harold Camping, the rapture was supposed to happen tonight at 6 pm based on his calculation of numbers from the Bible. I didn’t want to say anything to jinx it but according to the clock, it looks like we have been officially “left behind.” I’ve been having debates on facebook about whether it’s Eastern or Central Time, so there might still be hope.
All jokes aside, the bottom line from Peter’s perspective is that salvation is a journey. What do we need to be saved from? Peter gives us a clue in the opening of his chapter when he tells his readers to rid themselves of malice, guile, insincerity, envy, and slander. These sinful qualities undermine our ability to receive God’s love, much less share it with other people. We drive other people out of the room when the gospel that we share is corrupted by the pettiness of our egotism. Even after we climb aboard the gospel train, God’s still got plenty of saving to do in our lives, because our hearts still need a lifetime’s worth of cleaning. When we give our lives to Jesus, that’s only the start of the journey. It means giving the Holy Spirit the keys to our heart so he can get in there to vacuum, scrub, and most importantly declutter all of our idols, those shallow things we try to worship when we fail to see that God is the source of all the world’s beauty.
This is what it means to “let ourselves be built into a spiritual house” in which Jesus is the cornerstone. We have to recognize that the house of our soul will always be a work in progress and we have to be open enough about our imperfections to allow God to continue to remodel us. Notice that Peter doesn’t tell us to build our own spiritual houses; it’s when we try to build them ourselves that we get in trouble. When I see the gospel as an affirmation of how right I am and how wrong other people are, I might not realize that I’m locking the Holy Spirit out of my heart but that’s what I’m doing. Becoming a Christian is not about swelling up with pride because I’m cheering for the right team. It’s about discovering the freedom that our savior gives us to admit that we’re wrong and let ourselves be transformed by God. As long as we’re cocky enough to kick Jesus around in front of us like a soccer ball, He’s going to be our stumbling block. Letting ourselves be built on top of Jesus as our cornerstone requires a completely different attitude, a radical humility which we can only receive from God as a gift.
When Peter tells us that we’re a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” these are beautiful words of affirmation. They were written to churches in the land of modern-day Turkey filled with people from the bottom of society who were under severe persecution by the Roman Empire. But these are not only words of affirmation. Peter isn’t giving his readers a compliment on what great people we are; he’s telling us what God has called us to be in order to get us to start living out our call. Peter isn’t talking about our accomplishments; he’s talking about our responsibilities. God has the power to transform us into a royal priesthood who can share His love with the world. He can do this and He will do this, but we’ve got to let Jesus be the cornerstone upon which our spiritual house gets built.
Peter says that the way we go from being “no people” to “God’s people” is by being the people who “have received mercy.” Accepting God’s mercy through Jesus Christ is the key to everything. Christians have all kinds of opinions about how this happens, how to make it “official,” when God knows or decides who gets in and who won’t. And so we kick Jesus around, like a big stone ball, taking pleasure when other peoples’ toes get smashed, thinking that we win the game when everybody else is too tired or too bruised to keep kicking. I’m not sure that I’ve fully accepted God’s mercy yet because I get far too much satisfaction from winning arguments about God with other people. Accepting God’s mercy means I stop kicking the Jesus rock around for the sake of my own glory and let God build me into a house for the sake of His glory. We do not build our spiritual houses on the rightness of what we believe about Jesus; our houses are built by God on the mercy that gets His foot in the door of our hearts. Don’t make Jesus the rock that you kick at other people; let Him be the cornerstone on which God builds you into His beautiful temple. That way, when others see the love of God in you, they will want the same cornerstone for their hearts.