Why you need to hear Jonathan Martin preach about heaven

I’ve got issues with how people talk about heaven. It bothers me that the most popular Christian books are “proofs” of the afterlife instead of accounts of how people have lived out the kingdom of God here on Earth. Last week, part of my sermon text came from a passage in Hebrews 11 that refers to the hope of the Israelite patriarchs: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises… They desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” It is one thing to live in the hope of a promise that will not be fulfilled in your lifetime; it is another thing to live in a nihilistic indifference to God’s beautiful creation because you’re ready for Him to burn it up and rapture you away. The way that my favorite podcast preacher Jonathan Martin put it in his sermon last week is that we don’t need to get ready to leave Earth and go to heaven; we need to be ready for the day that God brings heaven to Earth.

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Mercy Not Sacrifice: A Recovering Evangelical’s Manifesto

I desperately need your help and feedback in pulling this book together. I have shared below summaries for the introduction and the 16 chapters of Mercy Not Sacrifice. I know this is a really long blog post, but it would mean so much to me if you would look at it and help me make some decisions that I haven’t yet been able to make. Paste it into MS Word and print it out if it’s easier. I’m going to be discouraged if nobody responds. I can’t help it. As I learned in church-planter training, God made me a diva for the sake of my calling. If I ever actually publish this thing, I’ll say nice things about you in the front and help you with yours if you ever write one. Continue reading

Is what I’m doing or thinking or saying building trust or undermining trust?

There’s a song stuck in my head from our mission trip: “Is what I’m doing or thinking or saying building trust or undermining trust?” I learned it from a woman named Katie who has one of the most gentle, Christ-like spirits of anyone I’ve met in a long time. I think if God wanted to teach the world something, he would get the best results using someone like Katie whose demeanor builds trust. Being an impulsive, opinionated firebrand, I am convicted by those who actually embody the gospel that I love so much in theory. Continue reading

Trust not opinion

In the information age, people define themselves primarily by their opinions rather than their actual behavior. This is not only the case for hard-core partisan ideologues, but also moderates who define themselves as more “reasonable” by balancing “conservative” opinions with “liberal” ones. While it used to be said that treating others with respect and integrity was the measure of one’s character, many today evaluate their moral courage according to how willing they are to stand up for their opinions (ESPECIALLY IF THEY DO SO IN ALL CAPS). I don’t know to what degree bad Christian theology contributes to our society’s ideological wasteland and to what degree it is the product of it. But I do think there is a basic problem in how we understand the faith that saves us. Many Christians today think that “faith” amounts to believing the right things (holding the right opinions) about Jesus’ death and resurrection so that He will respond by “saving” us and accepting us into His kingdom. But I think it’s more in line with Biblical teachings to say that our faith is the result of God winning our trust through what Jesus did so that we could be saved from the impossible hell of trying to prove our worth to God, whether through deeds or rituals or opinions. Continue reading

God Will Provide: Abraham & Isaac

I don’t know about you but if God told me to kill my oldest son and offer him as a sacrifice, I’d tell God to go kick rocks. Of course, God would probably make me eat the rocks. But seriously what’s going on with Abraham in this story? What happened to the crafty Abraham in Genesis 12 who went to Egypt and pretended like his wife was his sister so the Pharaoh wouldn’t kill him and he’d get lots of cattle and cash? What happened to the sassy Abraham in Genesis 19 who argued with God for twenty minutes over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah?

We’re used to thinking Abraham did whatever God told him but that really only happens twice. Last week, we talked about how God told Abram to finish the journey that his father started. Well, that wasn’t too hard. The place he was staying, Haran, was like the boring Midwest of the ancient Near East. If God tells you to leave the cornfields and go to California, that’s not a tough decision. But demanding your son as a sacrifice: that’s when the honeymoon is over.

It’s important to explain that it wouldn’t have been a surprise at all to Abraham for God to expect a first-born sacrifice. All the ancient gods asked for it. So as Abraham was wandering around with God, he was probably waiting for God to pop the question. He had Ishmael as his backup son, so if something happened to Isaac, the estate would be intact. So what did God do? He waited until right after Abraham’s wife Sarah ran Ishmael off to show up and collect payment. If Abraham had been like most ancient Near Eastern fathers, he would have had 7 or 8 children and he could have said, “Sure, God, the first one’s a brat anyhow. You want him, he’s yours. My second son is so much more of a man.”

But Abraham wasn’t like most ancient Near Eastern fathers. His wife Sarah had been barren until God promised to give them a son at an age when it was biologically ridiculous. Isaac’s name in Hebrew is Yitzhak, which means “laughter,” because Sarah laughed when she heard she was going to have a son. God had performed a ridiculous miracle, so for Him to take it back would have been unspeakably cruel.

Now we know because the Bible tells us that this whole thing was just a test of Abraham’s faith. But Abraham didn’t know that. What did Abraham know and when did he know it? Abraham says two things which give us a hint. First, when he gets to the mountain of sacrifice, he tells his servants to wait with their donkeys while he and Isaac go to worship, saying specifically that “we will return,” meaning both he and Isaac, which he didn’t have to say. Then, when Abraham is walking up the mountain with Isaac, his son asks him where the sacrificial animal is, and Abraham says to his son, “God will provide a lamb for us.”

Now you might think that Abraham was lying to both his servants and his son. This cynical reading would be the only possible explanation if God had never promised to make a nation out of his offspring. Without that promise, the best Abraham could have done would have been to keep things pleasant until they had to get ugly. But Abraham had asked God directly in Genesis 15 if his servant Eliezer was going to inherit his estate and God said, no, your own flesh and blood will be your heir and your offspring shall be like the stars in the sky. And the Bible says, “Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

We don’t know how Abraham felt inside when he answered his son’s question. We don’t know if he believed all the way in God’s promise or if he was like the man many centuries later who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe! Help me with my unbelief!” Whatever was in Abraham’s head, what he said was God will provide. Say that with me one time: God will provide. It’s one of the most important phrases in the whole Bible. And the strange thing about this phrase is the people who say it the most are people in impossible circumstances like Abraham was.

Some of y’all know I was a pastor before I came here in a community where people were living on the edge, most of them behind on their rent and on the verge of getting either evicted or deported. And I’ve never heard a group of people say God will provide more than they did. The strange thing about faith is that it’s often hard to come by until you need it because you’ve got nothing else.

I live a pretty comfortable life, so the closest I come to being in a situation where I have to say God will provide is putting up door-hangers all over town, knowing good and well that any door-hangers left on my door go straight to the recycling bin, but hoping that somebody would actually give us a chance. God will provide. I want so badly for Him to provide if there’s somebody out there who’s having a rough time and needs a church family like the one in this room that has blessed me for the past year. God will provide. Saying that phrase is asking God to help me believe it and trying to convince myself that I do believe it at the same time.

Now somebody might ask, “Why say God will provide?” Isn’t this all just the power of positive thinking? Why not say instead “I will provide” and decide that you’re going to be successful until you are? And furthermore, Mr. Preacherman, you’re letting God off the hook too easily for asking Abraham to do something despicable? Test or not, I could never worship a God like that.

Let me answer both of the objections at once. The reason why it makes sense to say God will provide is that He has provided a lamb for us. Abraham surely didn’t realize it, but his answer to Isaiah’s question was one of the first prophetic declarations of the coming of Christ. The test God gave to Abraham was the beginning of a new religion that would be defined by the lack of child-sacrifice. Abraham and his descendants had an elaborate sacrificial system, but it never again would involve children like it did in other ancient cultures.

Now one thing we don’t understand in our modern world is that there’s a basic spiritual need that sacrifice addresses. Through the daily process of stepping on each other’s toes and getting in each other’s way, we build up a kind of rage that needs to let itself out. If the pressure builds and there’s no outlet, then it gets released chaotically in emotional volcanoes which cause people to get hurt. In our modern world, we deal with this pressure by medicating ourselves whether it’s prescribed by a doctor or not. But in ancient Israel, the way people got rid of their bad blood was through sacrifice. By offering sacrifices to God, the Israelites could let go of their sins and their grudges against others’ sins so they could live together in peace.

This worked for a time, but then God saw that the Israelite sacrificial system had been corrupted and turned into a power game for the religious hierarchy, so He pulled the most ultimate role reversal He could have. God came to Earth in the form of His Son Jesus and made the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. God provided a lamb. That’s why it’s appropriate not only to say He will provide, but that He has provided. He not only stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son; God sacrificed Himself in the form of His Son Jesus. And because God has provided a lamb for us, we can take to His cross all of our baggage; all the anger, pain, and guilt from a lifetime of misunderstandings and betrayals can be washed clean in the only solvent that breaks down every sin – the blood of Jesus. God didn’t need His Son’s blood to prove anything to Himself; Jesus gave Himself up for us, the people who need a cross where we can put our rage, our doubt, and our fear, the people who cannot clean their own hearts in the way that only Jesus can.

God is always providing for us in all kinds of ways, whether it’s helping us find a spouse or a job or community to take care of us. But the most important thing God provides is freedom from the sins we have committed and the sins committed against us; we have a cross to put them on because God has given us a lamb for our salvation just like He did for Abraham.

Fear & the Fixed Game of Following Jesus

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #2, 3/19/2011
Text: Mark 14:32-42

One of my favorite books is Where the Wild Things Are. How many of you read that book when you were little? I remember my dad telling me after reading it that if I had scary monsters in my dreams, I should ask them to play with me and it really worked. Sometimes fears have simple solutions, but that isn’t always true. So what are you afraid of? How many people are afraid of monsters? How many people are afraid of the dark? How many of you are afraid of someone breaking into your home and hurting you or your family? Who’s afraid of making a fool of yourself? What about going to the doctor? How many of you are afraid of conflict?

One thing that every type of fear has in common is the dread of facing our lack of control. I’m afraid of burglars because I can’t control what they’ll do. If I bought a gun, I wouldn’t be afraid of burglars, but then my fear would shift to the fact that I can’t control what my sons might do with the gun. These past couple of months, I’ve had a pain in my stomach that’s made it hard to sleep. I was afraid to go to the doctor for a long time because I didn’t want to find out that something was growing inside of me. It was easier to pretend that I had the situation under control. Well I finally went this week and got a CT scan which came back clear. So I went to the store and got some heartburn medicine and I think that may have been the problem all along. So how many of y’all have a man in your life who would rather suffer quietly than admit that he’s not in control of a situation? I’m guilty.

Now there’s a way that this dread of our lack of control at the root of every fear is the basic hurdle we have to overcome to be ready to spend eternity with God. The default position that we start out with as humans is to think that the world revolves around us. All toddlers have to go through the traumatizing experience of learning that Mommy is not just a milk-cow and snuggle-mountain created for their convenience. My son Isaiah stopped nursing a year ago but he’s still fighting hard against the notion that his mommy exists for any purpose other than his needs.

To some degree, everyone graduates from the complete self-centeredness of a baby. But not entirely. As we grow, the form of our self-centeredness changes; it becomes the delusion of self-sufficiency. We no longer think that everyone else in the world exists to make us happy, but we find it important to believe that we are the masters of our own destinies. I may not be the center of attention for the whole universe, but there are things that are mine because I earned them and inside my castle, I am God. In this delusion, we try to deny that anything can happen to us beyond our control. We can keep up this front of denial as long as life plays along and does nothing to shatter it. But ultimately, nobody can avoid the absolute loss of control that is death and there is no ruder awakening than to spend a lifetime building a castle of self-sufficiency only to see it crumble to pieces at the very end.

What Jesus Christ has given us through His life, death, and resurrection is a safe way to let go of our delusions of self-sufficiency so that we can adjust to the reality that we’re not in control. Jesus makes it okay to admit that we don’t have our lives under control through renouncing control of His own life and even His own body to a horrible death on the cross. One aspect of Jesus’ journey to the cross is that it gives us a model for the right way to face fear.

So how does Jesus face fear? Is he calm about what he has to do? He says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” That doesn’t sound calm. The gospel of Luke is very graphic about his physical condition, saying that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” He knows what His destiny is; He knows why He has to do it; and yet He asks His Father, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken away.” That sounds like fear to me. It sounds like Jesus really didn’t want to do what He had to do.

Of course somebody might try to be smart and say, “What’d he have to worry about? He’s the Son of God. Didn’t He know His Daddy was going to bring Him back?” The way one person put it was to say that Jesus was playing in a “fixed game,” where He knew what the final score was going to be before the game even got played. It’d be like Coach K pretending to be worried that Duke might not win the national championship when Kyrie Irving is back in the lineup. So is Jesus just playing along? Is He just acting? I know that some people can cry on cue, but I’ve never heard of anybody learning how to sweat bullets on cue. And just because Jesus trusted that His Father had Him covered didn’t mean that the cross wasn’t going to hurt.

Jesus could have pulled out of the situation. He had divine powers. He could have called down lightning or an army of angels or whatever He needed. But He didn’t, because despite the fact that He was afraid, He was absolutely committed to following His Father’s plan for saving humanity. And so at the end of His prayer, after He tests the waters to see if His Father will give Him an out, He says, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” That little phrase encapsulates what it means to face our fear perfectly. Let’s practice saying that. Not my will, but Thy will be done. Remember how I said fear is about not being in control. Well facing our fear is about trusting the One who is in control and believing that whatever His will is, all will be well in the end.

The fact is that we’re playing in a “fixed game” ourselves. A lot is going to happen between now and the end of the game – we’re going to lose some friends and gain other ones, we’ll have career successes and disappointments, our kids will make us proud and embarrass us, people we love are going to leave this life before we’re ready, and one day we will reach the finish line ourselves. But what we can trust is that God is going to win the game, and if we trust in His plan, then whatever crosses stand between us and the finish line of our lives, we will join our resurrected savior in glory.

God doesn’t expect us to pretend like we’re not afraid. We can and should admit it whenever we are afraid just like Jesus Himself did, but we should also trust that God’s plan will achieve the final victory and hold onto the promise of Romans 8:28 “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” Now just to be clear, this promise is not some kind of underhanded hint that if we prove our love for God by putting lots of money in the offering plate or acting really passionate about the Bible, then God will stop bad and scary things from happening to us. But if we put our trust in God and hang onto the stubborn belief that He loves us through thick and thin, then He will help us find the good in the bad and scary things that do happen in the natural processes and human societies that constitute life.

The process of becoming a Christian disciple is learning how to really mean it when we say, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” That’s hard to do! The first step is admitting that we are not in control. At first, it might be an act of discipline, but if we trust God enough to let Him transform our hearts, it will become an act of love. What we discover as we put our trust in God is that doing this makes life bearable as we face what we’re afraid of, whether it’s shame, loneliness, getting hurt, or getting sick. What makes it possible to walk through the valley of the shadow of death that every single one of us will face no matter how lucky we’ve been so far is knowing not just in our mind but in our heart and soul that God is with us.

Now I’ve been places in my life where hearing a preacher say that would do nothing for me. Words and ideas are little comfort to people facing fear. But God does better than words. Through Jesus Christ, He has made a vine for us to grow on and those of us who trust in Him are the branches that He uses to touch other peoples’ lives and help them get onto the vine. God has made us into a body so that He can use us to care for all of His children, whether they know Him or not. Trusting God is not just a private relationship that has nothing to do with other people; we trust in God by becoming the body of Christ, through which God provides a safe place for people to bring their fears and receive His love. Jesus faced fear, so that we could face our fears together as one body who say in one voice, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

Sloth: Burying God’s Gifts

Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 2 out of 7 — 10/23/2010
Text: Matthew 25:14-30

Some of you might be aware that the country of France is in the midst of major protests because the government has proposed to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. This has been an interesting backdrop for contemplating a sermon on sloth, the deadly sin of the week. Part of me wants to start singing Les Miserables. But another part of me wants to say to the French, “Are you serious? You have a 35-hour workweek with eight weeks a year of vacation! What are you retiring from? Where I’m from, we work 80 hours a week and we’re adding more and more hours every year.”

So maybe I need to go over to France to preach about sloth. How do I preach about it here in Northern Virginia? Are there actually any lazy people living in Fairfax County? I haven’t found them yet. This is one of the busiest places in America. The first challenge of preaching a sermon on laziness in northern Virginia is that, if anything, it seems like our problem is the opposite of laziness.

The other difficulty for me in wrestling with “sloth” is that I’ve been through periods of my life in which depression and anxiety caused me to be completely unproductive. I had days in which I would go into the office and literally stare at the screen all day. From the outside, I’m sure that I looked lazy; on the inside, I was acutely aware of what a failure I was. If I had gone to church during that time and heard a preacher say that lazy people need to “suck it up” and take responsibility for their lives, I’m not sure I would know what to do with that advice other than beat myself up even more and become even less productive.

At first glance, the message of Jesus’ parable of the talents seems to be that we do need to suck it up and throw ourselves full-throttle into the hypercompetitive world we live in. It’s like Apprentice. The go-getter servant who takes Donald Trump’s 5 talents and makes 5 more gets put in charge of bigger things – maybe a real estate company, a casino. But the servant who melts down because he’s scared and doesn’t know what to do gets kicked to the curb. If God handed me a million dollars (which is what a talent might amount to in modern day cash), I wouldn’t know the first thing to do with it. So is this parable saying that people who are insecure and doubt themselves better get over it if we want to be competitive applicants for the kingdom of heaven?

In a way, yes, but in a more important way, no. Our insecurity and self-doubt can be a crippling roadblock that keeps us out of communion with God, but the way around this roadblock is not something we can resolve by deciding to do so. One of the basic problems with how the modern world understands sin, and sloth in particular, is that we assume morality is mostly about decisions when it’s really about habits. We assume the way to avoid sin is simply to resolve in our minds not to do it and be strong enough to stick to our word. Since the time of the Enlightenment, when Rene Descartes said his famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” humans have put way too much faith in the power of our own minds.

The world is full of seemingly harmless clichés that follow this line of thinking, like “If you set your mind to it, you can do anything.” Sloth happens when we take advice like this seriously only to find out it’s a lie, when we discover the desperate truth of human reality Paul describes in Romans 7: “I want to do what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The basic problem of our sinfulness is the impossible gap between what we know we ought to do and what we really end up doing. Sloth means giving up the hope that I will ever be who God wants me to be, which is understandable if I assume that I’m in this struggle all by myself.

The bad news is that sloth is not a decision but a habit, and bad habits are about as easy to get out of as quicksand; they require more than just resolving in our minds to change; we must engage in a patient, continual battle that is pretty well impossible to fight on our own. With sloth, I think about the battles of the kitchen sink and the laundry pile; it’s so hard to gain the discipline to wash the dishes right after we eat or put the laundry away right after it’s dry; and these are the least of our bad habits.

But the good news is that we aren’t on our own. Jesus is patiently waiting for us to acknowledge His hand reaching out to us in the quicksand of our bad habits. Twelve step programs are effective in dealing with bad habits because they dispel with the myth that our minds are all powerful. What are the first three steps of every twelve-step program? 1) Acknowledging that we are powerless over our problem. 2) Believing that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. 3) Turning our wills and our lives over to God’s care. The way out of sloth and every other sin for that matter is to get rid of the motto of modern life – I think, therefore I am – which places so much responsibility and faith in the power of my mind, and replace it with a new one: I trust, therefore I am, in which my basis for being is the faith that Jesus can change me in ways I never could change myself.

If we say, I trust, therefore I am, that means accepting the gift of freedom that God has given us by turning our wills and our lives over to His care. Sloth properly understood is rejecting this gift and burying it in the ground, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I stay in bed all day. There’s plenty of ways to bury the call and gifts that God has given me. Throwing myself into my career and working hard enough that I’m too busy for God is a form of sloth. Going through the motions of church life without being attentive to my need for spiritual growth is a form of sloth. Trying to prove my worth as a pastor by launching new ministries and giving eighty hours a week to church work so that I no longer really have time to listen to God is no less slothful than lying on a couch in a Sluggie covered in beer and potato chips.

This is because sloth doesn’t have to do with the failure to make our lives busy; sloth is the failure to trust God enough to give our lives to Him and let Him set our agendas. All the worldly life accomplishments we could imagine – being made CEO, a full partner, a full professor; having successful, well-adjusted children; building a company from a shoe-string budget into a giant multinational corporation – all of these accomplishments are worth about as much to God as a couch potato’s loud belch when we are completely uninterested in following God’s will for our lives, when we do what we do to prove that we’re worth something rather than receive our worth from being part of Christ’s body and then give our lives to the advancement of God’s kingdom.

Too often, under the pressures of life, we settle for the mediocre goal of living in such a way so that nobody has any claim on us. This means working hard enough in school to keep my parents off my case, getting a decent job so I’m not mooching off anybody else, staying out of other peoples’ business, and, of course, making sure my lawn is cut on a regular basis (at least in the front). It is this approach to life that is embodied by the servant burying God’s money so that he can give it back to God intact. Thanks but no thanks, God; I prefer mediocrity to the scary prospect of trusting you to develop my gifts and use me in ways that I never would have imagined. I’d rather have a simple, basically good, inoffensive life in which I’m in charge.

What Jesus is warning us about in this parable is that even living cautious and inoffensive lives if we’re uninterested in God’s plans for us and the world can keep us out of the joy of God’s eternal presence. Jesus doesn’t want us to live with the regret of not using the gifts that God has given us. Such a life is an outer darkness of weeping and gnashing of teeth, despite whatever mask of busy-ness or worldly success we wear. As St. Augustine once wrote, “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.” And that is the final truth about sloth: there is nothing restful about it. What is truly restful is allowing God to order our lives into a rhythm of worship; true Sabbath rest is an embrace of complete trust in God that is the opposite of sloth and in fact the antidote to sloth.

Truly un-slothful people don’t come across as being busy, because they have given their time to God, which gives them a peace that underlies whatever level of activity their lives contain. I’m not there yet, but with God’s grace I’m going to keep on trying. Let’s not be the people whose anxious response to God’s call for our lives is to bury His gift in the mud and busy ourselves with other things. Let us be the people who trust that God will fulfill His purpose in our lives, so that, following His lead, we will have the surprising joy of harvesting fruit that we never thought we could grow: new talents to add to the ones that He first gave us.