Locusts vs. prophets (a sermon on Joel 2)

locust swarmLast weekend, I preached on the passage from Joel that Peter quoted in his famous Pentecost sermon that we read from Acts 2 every year. But the context for Joel 2:23-32 is very different than Acts 2. The Israelites have just returned from their Babylonian exile and their land has been devoured by a swarm of locusts. In preparing for the sermon, I did a lot of research on locusts and learned that they have a very interesting trait that humans tend to emulate when we have not put our trust in God. More commentary below with sermon audio here: Continue reading

Isaiah 7 & 53: should prophecies be prooftexts?

weigleMy great-grandfather Luther Weigle [pictured here] was the dean of Yale Divinity School and chair of the translation committee for the original RSV Bible. He incurred the fury of the fundamentalists when he chose to translate the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “young woman” instead of “virgin.” They actually burned RSV Bibles and sent the ashes to him in the mail. The reason? Isaiah 7:14 is referenced by Matthew’s gospel as an explanation for Jesus’ virgin birth. But Isaiah 7:14 also refers to the “young woman” who was Isaiah’s prophetess wife and definitely not a virgin. In Isaiah 7 and 8, she bore Isaiah two children with prophetic names related to their immediate historical context. Does the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth depend on translating almah as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14? Only if Isaiah 7:14 is expected to function as a prooftext for that doctrine, which raises a larger question: to what degree should Old Testament prophecy be used as prooftexts? And if Isaiah 7 is allowed to have less than a perfectly mapped correspondence to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, then can we apply the same hermeneutical boundaries to the relationship between Isaiah 53 and the circumstances of Jesus’ death on the cross? Continue reading

How the despised ones bring everything to nothing (1 Cor 1:28)

“He has chosen the lowly things of this world: the despised ones and those who are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). It isn’t just my heart’s tattoo; I really believe it’s one of the most important prophecies of the Bible. Jesus was the ultimate despised one, a king whose reign is defined precisely by his utter social rejection. When we are truly saved, we become despised ones with Jesus, being “crucified together with Christ” so that “it is no longer [we] who live but Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:19-20). What are we saved from? Legitimacy, which is “friendship with the world [and] enmity with God” (James 4:4), since it is a declaration of independence from God. How do the despised ones that Paul describes “bring to nothing the things that are”? By destroying the categories of legitimacy constructed by the normal majority (a.k.a. “the world”) as a substitute for reliance on God’s mercy.

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“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (salvation AS Pentecost)

To prepare for Pentecost, I’ve been reading Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong’s The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh. Yong argues for a “pneumatological soteriology” (Spirit-centered account of salvation) that “would be in contrast to soteriologies that tend to bifurcate the work of Christ and of the Spirit… articulated by Protestant scholasticism… [in which] Christ provides salvation objectively (e.g., in justification) and the Spirit accomplishes salvation subjectively (e.g., in sanctification)” (82). In the prophecy from Joel that Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, God makes an incredible promise: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” What if this statement is taken as the centerpiece of God’s salvation of humanity and the world? What if the salvation made possible through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ finds its full expression in the perpetual Pentecost poured out by the Holy Spirit? Continue reading

Eternal life: being fully present to God

There’s a concept that we talk about in ministry and relationships: being fully present. I think of the smart-phone commercial where a guy and a girl are on a date, and the guy is watching a basketball game on the sly, but can’t keep himself from bursting into cheers while the girl is trying to have a “fully present” conversation. It hit me this morning in a moment in which I was not fully present to my wife how rarely we are fully present to God. Since I’m always thinking of ways to translate the gospel into paradigms that might resonate with people in a different way, I wonder whether we can describe eternal life as the state of being fully present to God while sin refers to the deeds and attitudes that sabotage our capacity as individuals and a community for full presence with God. Continue reading

Is God Against Hegemony? (The Question of Babel)

There is probably not a more awkward passage for Biblical literalists than the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. How exactly do you build a tower to heaven in the real world where physics and atmospheric pressure exist? And what kind of sovereign God would squash this project out of fear that “nothing they propose to do will be impossible for them” (v. 6)? The text gives no moral reason why building the tower was wrong so the creators of children’s Bible videos have to fill in a lot of blanks. But as I was considering this story last week in our Pentecost week readings, it hit me that maybe God just hates hegemony. Continue reading

Going All In For Jesus

Sermon for 5/14/2011
Text: Acts 2:42-47

Five years ago, I had a rock band called the Junior Varsity Superheroes that was going to make it big. We had recorded a CD and got some reviews. We were gearing up for a CD release party in April of 2006. But in the midst of this excitement, we had some conflict. I wanted us to go all in, sending our press kit out to venues and festivals all over the country, with the goal of quitting our jobs and becoming full-time rock stars. But my bandmates saw the band as a fun hobby and a way to blow off some steam. So we held our CD release party and we were all set to play our first big out-of-town gig. Then three things happened. My son Matthew was born, our guitar player got transferred to Columbus, Ohio, and our bass player got into pharmacy school in Georgia. I had wanted to go all in for the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, but God knew that He had to close that door so I could go all in for something bigger than myself.

I share this story because we find ourselves in a season of graduation speeches that always seem to have the same thesis statement: go out and do something important that changes the world. Our culture has this assumption that changing the world and becoming somebody important are synonymous. But I want to suggest to you that they are actually a conflict of interest, because the world got to be the way that it is from millions of people trying to be important. The only way we can change the world is to give ourselves completely to the mission of the only One who can change it, to go all in for Jesus.

Our scripture reading for today is taken from Acts 2:42-47. It describes the first church in Jerusalem right after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven. Throughout the centuries, Christians have viewed the Jerusalem church as a model to which all every church should aspire.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This is what the world looks like among a community that decides to go all in for Jesus. It’s a world filled with awe in which the signs and wonders of God are noticed and appreciated. It’s a world where people are devoted to learning all they can about God and spending quality time with each other. It’s a world where people share with one another and everyone has what they need. It’s a world where God is worshiped in word and deed. But notice also what is missing from this world. There are no rock stars. No individual is in the spotlight. Certainly the apostles were teaching, but they were simply fulfilling the role to which they had been called. All of the pronouns used in this scripture are plural – they, all, and everyone. Important things were happening, but nobody needed to be important.

It kind of reminds me of what’s been happening in this building this weekend. Nothing feels all that heroic about filling up baggies with dried food to send to other countries. It would be much more exciting if we got to be the ones who delivered the meals especially if it involved rappelling out of a helicopter or something like that. But somebody has to mix the baggies. It’s something that we can do right here where we are. And the cool thing about doing work like this is that God doesn’t just use it to change somebody else’s world; He uses it to change our world too, because doing unglamorous work teaches us how to be servants. This weekend, there have been many people who have taken care of lots of logistical details behind the scenes. But they didn’t give any speeches; they aren’t asking for any medals. What they have received is the gift of having a purpose by devoting themselves to God’s purpose.

One background hero who I wanted to mention is a woman who came last weekend for the Duffy House event here at church. I’d never seen her before so I don’t think she goes to our church. She saw me stuffing door-hangers so she told me to go do something else and she spent her whole day stuffing door-hangers as she greeted the guests and told them where to go. She probably did about 500. Because of her work, about half a dozen more people were able to participate in putting up the door-hangers that she stuffed, and then some of our neighbors who received these door-hangers were able to participate in God’s kingdom. That’s the way it works in the kingdom – God uses our intangible, unglamorous deeds not only to help people with concrete needs but also to expand His kingdom by creating opportunities for others to join in. But it only works if people are willing to put aside their need to be important and humbly take care of the task that God has put in front of them.

Another thing God does to change the world is to change our boundaries. In Acts 2, the Jerusalem church became God’s family by breaking bread together with people who had no blood relation with them. The concept of having a community potluck might not seem like a big deal to us now, but this was a huge shift in cultural values 2000 years ago. Poor people and rich people eating together? Jews and Gentiles? It never would have happened outside the body of Christ. Because they saw each other as one family, whenever anybody in that church had needs, people with property would sell some of it and give the proceeds to their brothers and sisters in need. It also says that they held their possessions in common, a radical step that would be way outside of our comfort zone today.

Now I don’t think this means that we’re supposed to sell all our houses and set up cots in the fellowship hall to form a squalid refugee camp here at the church. That would be poor stewardship of the resources that God has given us. But the fact that we have our own individual houses should not mean that our family is only the group of people who live between the walls of those houses. God has put us in the neighborhoods where we live and the offices where we work for a reason: to invite others to be a part of God’s family. The world changes when we look at other people not just as clients, colleagues, business partners, or target audiences but brothers and sisters who all share the same Father in heaven. To see ourselves primarily as belonging to God’s family doesn’t mean that we neglect our biological families; our household is our primary mission field; but the boundaries of God’s family must supersede the other boundaries that the world draws for us between rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, black and white, between what’s inside my gated community and the scary world outside of it. When we see others in the world as part of our own family, then we help people in need not to show them that we’re more responsible, mature, or better than they are, but simply because they’re our brothers and sisters.

If we see ourselves and the rest of humanity as members of God’s family, then our global household has a single Head. In Acts 2, all that the Jerusalem church did to build community and become one family revolved around a single purpose that they shared: to worship and glorify God. When we live to worship God, we enjoy His creation and each other for the right reason – not as objects to be exploited for the sake of our self-promotion but as gifts from a gracious Father that open our hearts to His love. The world gives us plenty to be cynical about, but when we look at the world through worshipful eyes, we see all the ways that God’s kingdom is at work. Going all in with our devotion to this kingdom is how we build a world in which everyone has a part to play and everyone’s needs are fulfilled.

So the way to change the world is build the kingdom of God. It’s more than just doing nice things for people. Packing meals for hungry people, putting together school kits and medical kits and birthing kits are all an important part of this process, but only if we allow God to change us through what we’re doing. Though we can’t see God, He provides the most important ingredient in every mission project that we do, because what God does through all the objects that are organized, put into boxes, shipped to places far away, and shared with others is to make this process a means by which His love is shared with those who fill the boxes and those who open the boxes. If you didn’t get to be a part of changing the world this weekend, there will be many more opportunities. God is changing the world all the time. And when you want to help out, don’t feel like you need to do something important. Come to be changed; come to be shaped into God’s family; come to fall more deeply into love with God; because that’s the way the world gets changed, through the body of people who have decided to hold nothing back and go all in for Jesus.

Cut to the Heart

Sermon for 5/7/2011
Text: Acts 2:22-24, 36-41

How many of y’all like the band Bon Jovi? I know that some of you were probably in college when the song “Shot through the heart” came out. I was in third grade and I remember driving around with my uncle blaring his Bon Jovi tape through his neighborhood in south Texas. I could actually hit the high notes then. “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame; darling you give love a bad name!” I remember as a kid listening to this song, I thought Jon Bon Jovi was singing about getting shot with an actual gun. But then I had this ah-ha moment a few years ago where I figured out he’s talking about Cupid’s arrow!

It’s a strange phenomenon how we like for our hearts to be wounded. The Italian poet Francisco Petrarch invented the 14-line style of poetry that we know today as the sonnet to express the agony of falling in love with another man’s wife named Laura de Noves. What is interesting is that most of his poems have very little to do with Laura herself. Petrarch was in love with the agony of being shot through the heart. William Shakespeare took up the sonnet form two centuries later, although he added a layer of irony to it. Instead of simply pouring out his emotions, he makes fun of love poetry. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight; Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

There’s something amazing about having a crush on someone. I once wrote a song called PG-13 about the crush that I still have on my wife. But something also feels silly about it. The more deeply I learn to love, the more I feel silly writing a poem about it, because the words are always inadequate. Now I don’t want to hate on love poetry. How many poets do we have here? How many people are willing to call themselves romantics? Well, I’d like to make a contentious claim, so hear me out. I think the reason it feels good in such an agonizing way to get shot through the heart by Cupid is because what we really desire underneath the surface is to be cut to the heart by Christ.

Cut to the heart. It’s such a poignant phrase that hits me every time I read Acts 2. Peter has just given his first big sermon in Jerusalem, capping it off with a torpedo: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” And when the people hear this, they’re cut to the heart. So they ask Peter, “What do we do?” Peter tells them to repent and get baptized and 3000 people come forward to be baptized. It’s every preacher’s dream to get a response like that. Now I realize that some of you might be saying, gosh, I can’t stand it when preachers guilt trip people into coming up to the altar. I grew up in a church where we had altar calls every Sunday after hearing about how sinful we were. I know that one of the things people like about coming to this church is that we don’t do that, but I wonder if we need to find a happy medium.

I can understand people who get beat up by life each week needing to come here for some words of encouragement and grace so they can pick themselves back up again. God wants us to know how much He loves us and forgives us and welcomes us into His presence. But if we never get convicted by anything we hear in church, if we never get cut to the heart, then how can we experience the repentance that brings us to our knees and results in the strange perfect freedom of giving our lives to Jesus Christ?

In English, repentance is often defined as “being sorry enough for a mistake not to do it again.” But it’s translated in the Bible from the Greek word metanoia, which means so much more than that! Metanoia means never being able to look at the world the same way again. It means having your world rocked to the point that it’s no longer recognizable. To have that radically transformative experience, you’ve got to face something that stops you in your tracks, something that cuts you to the heart. In the case of the apostle Paul, Jesus had to literally knock him off his horse and strike him blind so he could have the metanoia that made him the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

I don’t want to preach in such a way that you feel beat up when you leave here, but I’d love it if God could put something in my mouth that would stop you in your tracks, because every time God has stopped me in my tracks particularly when He’s called me out on my sin, I walk away feeling not beat up but liberated. There’s pain when my heart gets cut; but every time it happens, another chain falls away and I can follow my Savior a little more freely. I can’t preach the sermon Peter preached. The people he was preaching to were part of the crowd a few months earlier that had shouted for Jesus to be crucified when Pilate wanted to let him go. They had hurled insults and spat upon Him as He was stumbling His way to the hill called Calvary. They jeered and mocked as He hung up on the cross struggling to breathe. But that was two thousand years ago and you weren’t there.

So what do you need to hear to be cut to the heart so your old way of looking at the world can be shattered and replaced by the vision of God’s kingdom? Is there someone in your life who you need to admit that you’ve crucified whether it’s through gossip, rudeness, negligence, or some other form of disrespect? I was a jerk to people in my family at least half a dozen times in the past week. Or do you need to admit that you’re too proud of yourself? You haven’t hurt anybody in particular, but you’re just a little bit too in love with reading your brilliantly clever status updates on facebook (which would be my sin).

Maybe you don’t need to go looking for ways to be cut to the heart because life has already done that for you. You’ve had some setbacks; you’ve lost someone close to you; your mind has decided to make you depressed even though you don’t want to be that way. And now your old way of looking at the world doesn’t work anymore; you need a new reality. Part of owning that new reality is to call whatever has hurt you a blessing, as strange as that sounds, because whatever has made us empty has made room that the Holy Spirit can fill.

Let me tell you about the time when I was cut to the heart most deeply. Humor me if I’ve already shared this story. I went backpacking in Mexico in the summer of 1998 because it was cheap and I liked the beer. There was a revolution happening in the state of Chiapas, so being a wannabe anarchist punk, I rode a bus down to San Cristóbal de las Casas. There was a little girl about five years old walking around barefoot in the square of San Cristóbal selling dolls of the Zapatista rebel guerrillas for a peso apiece. She came up to me and said, “Cómpralo, señor, por favor, cómpralo!” which means “Buy it, sir, please buy it!” I don’t know how to explain what happened in that moment other than to say that God cut me to the heart. That night, I wrote in my journal, “I can never be a tourist again.” I got baptized when I was 7; I prayed Jesus back into my heart at Young Life camp in high school; but I became a disciple of Jesus Christ when God cut my heart through meeting that little girl in the square of San Cristóbal.

You don’t have to go somewhere far away to have your heart cut by Jesus. You just need to pay attention to the hurt that’s going on all around you and receive it as an opportunity to share Christ’s love which is actually how we experience His love for ourselves. Unless we let Jesus cut our hearts, we can walk through our whole lives as tourists who dabble in a little bit of everything but never give ourselves to anything. If church is just a place we go to feel pleasant, then all we’re doing here is dabbling. Don’t dabble. Repent. This means more than just admitting your mistakes and being sorry, though that’s a start. It means to stop putting up a front like you’ve got your life under control and let the Holy Spirit have its way with you. It might be a rush to drive through the countryside with your windows rolled down blasting Bon Jovi’s “Shot through the heart.” But that’s nothing like the joy you feel when you’ve been cut to the heart by Jesus and His love flows in and out of you as the Spirit carves you into a perfect vessel of God’s mercy.