The third sermon “Rule #1: Do No Harm” in the “Blueprint for Becoming Disciples” sermon series is now up. You can listen to it on my podcast here.
This sermon discusses the first General Rule, “Do No Harm.” The sermon looks at the idea that in order for Christians to grow in their relationship with God, they first have to stop doing things that cause them to move away from God. In other words, before you can move forward in your faith, you have to stop going backwards. I relate a way that I learned this lesson when first learning how to drive a stick shift and coming to a stop just below the top of a hill. I had to stop going backwards before I could get the car to go forward.
As always, I would love to hear your feedback. What do you think are some particular areas where Methodists are called today to provide a witness in “doing no harm?” Is there anything that you particularly resonate with? Anything that you particularly disagree with?
The second sermon “Just the Beginning” in the “Blueprint for Becoming Disciples” sermon series is now up. You can listen to it on my podcast here.
This sermon lays the foundation for the Methodist blueprint for becoming disciples by focusing on the importance of God’s empowering and enabling grace. It also argues that once we have come to an initial experience of faith in Jesus Christ, that this is just the beginning. We have begun the journey and by grace we can actually become disciples of Jesus Christ.
As always, I would love to hear your feedback.
I am currently preaching a sermon series called “A Blueprint for Becoming Disciples.” In this sermon series we are looking at the method that caused our spiritual forebears to be called Methodist. John Wesley instituted an intentional method that he believed would help people move from initial faith in Jesus to a deep, life changing relationship with God. This sermon series is based on the conviction that many people want to grow in their relationship with God, but they aren’t always sure how. This series uses the General Rules and the accountability structure of early Methodism as a guide for a contemporary blueprint for becoming disciples.
Here are the titles of the sermons I will be preaching:
- The Method Behind the Madness (January 20, 2008)
- Just the Beginning (January 27, 2008)
- Rule # 1: Do No Harm (February 3, 2008)
- Rule # 2: Love and Serve Your Neighbor (February 10, 2008)
- Rule # 3: Love and Serve God (February 17, 2008)
- Watching Over One Another in Love (February 24, 2008)
- Finding the Balance (March 2, 2008)
- Where Are You Going? (March 9, 2008)
The first sermon in this series has been uploaded to my podcast and I plan to get the second one up today or tomorrow. (I have been having some trouble with gcast, which is why I am behind.) You can listen to the sermons here. If you do listen to them, I would love to hear your thoughts, reactions, criticisms.
This past sunday I preached on Matthew 1:18-25. Maybe it is because I am an expectant father, I’m not sure, but I found myself really drawn to Joseph in this passage. I started out with a basic question: What difference does Joseph make in this passage? Is he necessary? I found that he was necessary and had an important role to play. Here is the sermon:
Have you ever heard of the phrase “third wheel?” Well, allow me to explain. A third wheel is someone who finds themselves in a situation where they are basically totally unnecessary. And it isn’t just that they are unnecessary, they feel awkward even being present. It isn’t that their presence is neutral, it is actual negative. It is when you feel like you stick out like a sore thumb in a situation, because it is just that obvious that you shouldn’t be there.
Now, if you will allow me to borrow your imagination for just a second I will illustrate this for you. Let’s go back in time about 4 years. Melissa and I were engaged to be married, but I was going to seminary at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC and she was finishing up her last year of college at Oklahoma State University. Now, some of you are more aware of this than others, but this is the time of year when college and seminary students are finishing up their work for the semester and they are going home to be with their families for the holidays. For instance, this past Friday my brother in law Darren finished his last final exam and went back to Norman. So this time 4 years ago, I was on my way back to Tulsa to be with my family and Melissa was on her way back to Norman to be with her family. But here’s the thing, when you are engaged, and if you are honest, you are probably more interested in being with the person whom you are engaged to than anyone else. Especially if you have been separated for months by more than 1,000 miles!
Well, I won’t speak for Melissa, but I know that is how I felt. Ok, so I really wanted to spend time with Melissa. So, let’s say I flew into Tulsa my parents picked me up at the airport, drove me home, and then I unloaded all of my stuff. What do you think the next thing I did was? Yep, called Melissa. And before long I was probably asking if I could borrow a car to drive to Norman. Ok, but we still haven’t explained what a third wheel is. Now, imagine that right after I call Melissa and I tell her I am on my way to see her, imagine that she gets a phone call from her best friend and Melissa finds out that her best friend has just been dumped by her boyfriend who she had dated all semester. Say Melissa’s friend asks Melissa if she is doing anything. Melissa says that I am on my way over to see her and she is really excited. But then she feels sort of guilty because she remembers that her friend has just been dumped. So she asks her if she wants to come over and says, we are probably just going to go to dinner, why don’t you just come along? So, to make a short story long, the friend eventually decides that she will come to dinner with us.
So I get to Norman, excited to see my bride to be. I want to give her a big hug, a big kiss, and I want to just stare at her and rejoice at being in her presence. And Melissa feels the same way, she thinks to herself, man he is even more handsome than when I last saw him. I am the luckiest girl in the world! (Hey, this is my story, I will tell it how I want to.) And then there is Melissa’s friend. We have sort of forgotten she is even there… How do you think she feels? Thankfully, this story never actually happened, but if you can imagine that situation actually happening, that would be the textbook example of a third wheel.
The only person who I can imagine may have felt like even more of a third wheel, than our imaginary friend in the story would be Joseph in this morning’s Scripture reading. Matthew’s Gospel introduces Jesus birth this way, “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” Now, let’s go back to our story for a moment. Imagine that I arrive in Norman excited to see my bride to be again, and she looks like she does this morning. Stunningly beautiful, and with that amazing glow of pregnancy about her. Well, first I would want an explanation. Second, if her explanation was “I was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” I have a feeling that would be a tough explanation for me to accept. It might be understandable if Joseph’s reaction was not one of joy when his betrothed is found to be with child, and the only thing he is sure of is that he had nothing to do with it.
We sometimes get so comfortable with the Christmas story that we forget how strange it is. We forget how much it interrupted some people’s lives. In fact, if we read the story carefully, it interrupted everyone’s life who was paying attention. The people who noticed came from miles away to worship, or they went to great lengths to see that the threat to their authority was destroyed. But so many of these stories we know so well, but it seems that one of the stories that we sometimes forget to tell is the story of Joseph.
First, we are told that Joseph is a righteous or just man. So when he finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that it was not his doing, instead of seeking to disgrace her publicly, which is what most people would have done then, and would still do today, Joseph decides to divorce her quietly. That is such a simple statement, but it seems to me to be a great insight into Joseph’s character. Many people, even understandably, if they found out that their fiancé was pregnant by another man or had impregnated another woman, well they would probably vent their anger, frustration, and pain by talking about it. For many of us, part of working through our grief at being hurt by someone else seems to be talking to other people about what they have done to us. And that doesn’t just occur with affairs, it occurs with the biggest and the smallest wounds. But that is not Joseph’s reaction. I am reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that he really must love Mary deeply, because it was very easy for a man in Joseph’s position to obtain a divorce and to be absolved of any wrong doing. In other words, those around him would have been on his side. He could have ruined Mary, even had her executed, if he had wanted to.
But maybe Joseph loved Mary deeply. Maybe he was deeply hurt by this discovery, it may have felt like his heart had been ripped out of his chest and all his dreams of the perfect life with his wife destroyed. But still, he loved her, and so he decided to remove himself from what appeared to be an adulterous relationship, but he did not feel the need to do so in a way that caused her any more problems than necessary. Somehow, he seems to have been able to have compassion for someone he believed to be a deep sinner in the midst of his pain, hurt, anger, and disappointment.
And if that isn’t enough, once he has made this decision, he is visited by an angel, or a messenger from God. The message comes to him in a dream and it is this: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
And then Joseph woke up. Have you ever had a powerful dream? Here is what I think is so interesting about this, how did he know that it was God? I mean, guys, think about it, if your fiancé got pregnant, and you knew it wasn’t you, would a dream convince you that God was really the Father? And even if it did, how would you react? It seems to me that Joseph still had a choice. He could have woken up from the dream and said, man that was a weird dream! But there is no way that could be true. Or he could have woken up and been even more freaked out and said, I am getting out of here. He still had a choice. He could decide that this was in fact from God and be obedient or he could do something else. We have already been told that Joseph was a righteous man, but now he shows it because v. 24 tells us “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”
Now here is one more very interesting thing I want to point out about his story. During this time, the role that a father played in naming their child was very important, it was part of how they came into their lineage. Have you ever noticed what is strange about the lineage that Matthew gives just before this passage? It starts out: “This is the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham”. But when you read through it, notice how the genealogy ends: “and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called Messiah.” Did you notice that? This is Joseph’s lineage, not Mary’s! But we have just been told that Joseph aint the daddy! So what in the world does this mean?
It means that Joseph has a much more important role to play in the story than we usually realize! I often don’t like the headings that are included that mark off different passages of Scripture, and it is a pet peeve of mine when people are reading Scripture and they read the heading, because the heading is not part of the Scriptures. When Matthew’s Gospel was written, there were no headings. They are added by the people who do each translation. So if you compare different translations of the Bible they will have different headings. In other words, headings interpret the passage that they come before. That means that they can prejudice you to what the passage of Scripture says before you have even read it. But the heading in my TNIV Bible I think gets this one right. It reads, “Joseph Accepts Jesus as His Son.”
Isn’t that interesting? But Jesus is God’s Son! But, Jesus’ lineage is through Joseph not Mary. He would not be connected to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and on and on if he were not connected to Joseph. So it is important that Joseph accept Jesus as his son. And so the story from the Scriptures this morning ends, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had not union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” And he gave him the name Jesus. In naming Jesus, Joseph was signaling his acceptance of Jesus as his own son. We don’t have time to fully flush it out this morning, but surely that has some important implications for families who are not able to have children of their own flesh and blood and choose to adopt, or families where a marriage occurs where there are already children that are the result of previous relationships. In a time when this is more and more common, we would do well to look at the model that Joseph provides for being the father to a child that is not genetically your own.
As I read this morning Scripture reading throughout the week, maybe it is because more than any Christmas present that I will get this year, I am looking forward to receiving the gift of a daughter in April. Maybe being an expectant father has changed the way I read this story, but I can imagine Joseph feeling like a third wheel. Feeling like he is unnecessary, left out, and even in the way. Maybe even after deciding to stick around he still had to fight that feeling from time to time. And I have to confess, as I read this passage the first few times, I sort of thought, what is the point, what difference does Joseph make?
And it is in the connection of Joseph giving Jesus his name, which means the Lord saves, and thereby accepting him as his son that I realized why he matters. At many levels Jesus was an unpleasant surprise for Joseph. He challenged his hopes for his life, raising a child that was not his own was probably not on his list, not to mention trying to understand that this was God’s Son. And life can surprise and challenge all of us. In fact, it isn’t that this can happen- it does happen. The challenge that faces us, is when God interrupts our life with gifts that aren’t always immediately easy to receive, will we be able to trust God? Will we be able to receive not the gifts that we want, but the gifts that God gives? This is the challenge of Christmas that Joseph illustrates so well, because he shows a faithful example. Because what at first seemed like very bad news, Joseph came to realize was not just a baby, but one who would save his people from their sins. So like Joseph, may you during the Christmas season be able to recognize the hand of God in life’s surprises and interruptions and may you be able to accept the gifts that God chooses to give to you, receiving them with faith and trust.
Last Sunday I preached a sermon on Matthew 6:19-24. In working on the sermon I wrestled with the reality that American Christians seem to often struggle with divided hearts. We do claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior, but we also seem to find more meaning in the things of this world. Many Christians seem to put their hope not in God, but in the United States of America. But we are confronted in Matthew 6 with the words of Jesus Christ, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” The entire sermon follows below, if you are interested in reading it.
David Robinson was one of the best to ever put on a San Antonio Spurs basketball jersey. When he was playing at his best, he could take over a game. But he was not great just because of his basketball ability. He also had an amazing ability to keep things in perspective and avoid many of the traditional traps that NBA players often fall into. For instance, David Robinson was once interviewed and asked about the perception that he was sometimes rude to fans who were women. When asked why he was sometimes fairly blunt with other women his response was if a woman is going to offended by my behavior, it is not going to be my wife. So if I think that a woman is hitting on me, I will say so and make sure that she understands that I am not interested.
David Robinson’s heart was not divided, he loved his wife and he protected his relationship with her even when she wasn’t around. None of us may be an NBA All-Star or a celebrity, but nearly all of us will face the struggle to maintain a heart that is undivided. One of the primary reasons that many marriages are breaking up like never before is because people’s hearts are divided. We want to have companionship, we don’t want to be alone and so we get married. But we also want to be successful in our jobs, we want to have the right car, the right house, and so we are pulled in different directions. This causes many people to come to the conclusion that their lives are just going in different directions, as one Christian leader recently used as the explanation for why he and his wife were getting a divorce.
And our hearts are not just divided when it comes to relationships. It may be that more people in America are living divided lives than at any other place at any other time in history. This way of existing has not only become common, but it has become socially acceptable, even respected. Someone who is doing more than he or she can possibly do well, is often complimented because they are doing so much or they are such a hard worker. We are also constantly assaulted by the consumer culture that we live in with messages that we need this new gadget, or these new clothes, or that new car, or a better body, better (or more) hair, whatever it is we are constantly assaulted with the message that whatever we have, no matter how much it is, is not enough. So that if and when we drag our worn out, weary selves to the Scriptures, when we come to a chapter like this one, we can only sigh… and think about how great it would be if it were actually possible to live an undivided life. This Scripture passage seems to suggest not only that it is possible to live an undivided life, but that it is actually commanded in an important sense. The very first commandment of the Ten Commandments is, after all, “You shall have no other God’s before me.” But some will say, life is just different than it was in Jesus’ day, or in the time of Moses. Is it even possible to hope or expect to love and serve God with an undivided heart?
This past July Melissa and I went on vacation to New York City. A primary purpose of the trip was to watch a baseball game in Yankee Stadium before it is torn down at the end of next season. But one of the most lasting memories I have of the trip was a night that Melissa and I were exploring Times Square. Times Square is filled with neon lights, tv screens and building sized advertisements. There are people everywhere.
Melissa and I had dinner one evening in Times Square at a table that looked out on one of the busiest streets. There happened to be a hot dog vendor who set up his cart right outside of where we were eating. I was amazed when he deliberately pulled a rug out from somewhere in his cart, unrolled it, and kneeled down on the street next to his cart and began to go through what looked like a typical Muslim prayer ritual. Now, obviously this man was not a Christian, but he was actively practicing his faith in the midst of all the distraction and business around him. It seemed to serve as an important reminder to him of who he was. It made me wonder why more Christians don’t take practicing their faith as seriously as this man does.
As we walked back to our hotel this evening I wondered if the popular idea that this is a Christian nation might actually make it harder to be a faithful Christian, because there is this feeling that Christians aren’t different, they are just good Americans. And the more I have thought about it, the more concerned I have become that for many American Christians being a faithful Christian is the same thing as being a good American.
But you don’t have to look very far, or very hard, to realize that there are many many things that are happening in this country that are not consistent with the faith that Christians proclaim. And the worst part is that those same things are becoming more and more a part of the church. Ron Sider, for example, likes to point out that divorce has become more and more common in America over the last few decades, and at the same time it has become a more and more common practice among Christians at almost exactly the same rate that it has increased among the general population! Sider also points out that Christians tend to be just as racist as their non-Christian neighbors, they tend to give about the same amount of their money away as their non-Christian neighbors, and they even tend to abuse their spouses and children at the same rate as non-Christians. In far too many instances, when you look at the relationship between the Unites States and the Christian Church, it seems that it is American culture that is having an impact on the church, much more so than the church having an impact on the culture.
Even when we are in church and we pray, often times our prayer requests sound a lot more like America’s prayer list, than Jesus’ prayer list. We too often pray for the things that George Bush would have us pray for, instead of the things that Jesus tells us to pray for. For instance, I recently have noticed how often we lift up American soldiers for prayer. This is understandably on many of our minds, especially with so many Oklahomans recently being deployed. But do you know that I have never once heard an American Christian ask that we pray not for a certain nation’s success in war, but instead that we pray for peace? This should be deeply disturbing to us, because Jesus, after all, never told us to pray for US troops, but he did say “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And even more radically, he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
This is very clear and surprisingly straightforward, yet we don’t seem to take it all that seriously. It is much more natural for us to pray for our national loyalties, than it is to pray out of an expression of our loyalty to Christ. It is a scandal to the Body of Chris, when American Christians express more loyalty towards people who despise Christian faith and openly live lives that fundamentally opposed to the teaching of Christ, just because they happen to be American than they do people who are their brothers and sisters in Christ who happen to live in countries like Iraq or Iran. How can we justify this? How can we defend this in light of passages of Scripture like Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And yet, we express more kinship to our “fellow Americans” than we do to our fellow Christians.
It seems to me that one of the deepest struggles of Christians living in America is that our hearts are divided. We cannot decide if we love God or Lady Liberty. We cannot decide if our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, or the United States of America. We cannot decide which truth we hold to be more self evident that all have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, or that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” But the Scriptures suggest that we must decide, for “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
I yearn for the day when the church is filled with Christians who are willing to sell out for their faith, who are willing to turn away from anything that divides their loyalty and follow Jesus. It seems that there are many people in America today who have genuinely had an experience of God’s love in their life. In a recent study, depending on how the question was worded, 25-45 % of Americans reported that they see themselves as Born-Again Christians. That is 75 to 135 million people! Just think what that amount of people could do if they were deeply committed to their faith!
And so, we come back to a few key questions about the meaning and purpose of life. Is God real? Was Jesus incarnate as fully God and fully man? Did he die so that we might live? Was he resurrected on the third day? Does he continue to seek to draw us into relationship with him? As we think about these questions, can we continue to say that we have faith that Jesus is who the Scriptures say that he is? If we can, is seems that this faith has to change our lives, it should be the very foundation of all that we do, or don’t do. If God has entered fully into human life so that we can experience salvation and have relationship with him, this is something that must inform every decision that we make. It must become the lens through which we interpret everything else in life.
Now, we may not always succeed in doing this, I know that I have fallen on my face much more than I care to admit even to myself. But, it still must be the most basic part of any Christian’s identity. We are God’s children. In Christ, we have become God’s sons and daughters. And if Christianity is true, I don’t see how anything else could be more important than this. I don’t see how anything else could play a more important role in our lives. Frankly, being an American is meaningless compared to being a Christian! Now don’t get me wrong, I consider it a blessing to have been born in this country. I have been given so many opportunities because of the country that I have been born into. But I have found meaning in life not through my citizenship in the United States of America, but through my claim to be an heir of the kingdom that Christ has already inaugurated. And so, I can say with the Apostle Paul, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
And if it seems to you that I being overly melodramatic, we might want to remember that Paul was a citizen of an empire, very similar in his day to the United States. He was a Roman citizen. He was entitled to a great many privileges because of his Roman citizenship. So he probably had a pretty good idea of what is at stake for us when we consider placing our loyalty to Christ above all else. He is basically saying he considers his Roman citizenship garbage in order to gain Christ and be found in Christ. Paul ultimately laid down his life in order to gain Christ. This was the ultimate act of renouncing the Roman way of life. Are you willing to consider your US citizenship as garbage in order to gain Christ? Are you willing to pledge allegiance to the Kingdom of God and follow the way of living of this kingdom with out turning back?
For those who make such a commitment, they find that it is hard. In fact, living in this country where we are tempted and lured away from our faith commitments in so many subtle and not so subtle ways, it is impossible to do this on our own. So, like Jesus’ disciples said after Jesus talked about the rich and the kingdom of God, we might ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus still answers, “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Normally when the passage I read at the beginning of this sermon is preached on, the message focuses primarily on our relationship to money. And that is certainly what this story is about. However, this morning I believe we can also see that there is more at stake in having a heart that is undivided than just money. Christians still hear their Lord preaching to them in the Sermon on the Mount “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This morning, where is your treasure? Where is your heart? Committing your life fully to the Gospel of Jesus Christ may seem right now like only an impossible ideal. But the basic Christian message is one that reminds us that God is in the business of making the impossible possible. God raised Jesus from the dead after three days. If he can do that, how difficult can it be for him to enable you to follow him? To each of us who commit to live fully for the Lord, I believe that we will continue to hear Jesus Christ whisper in our ears, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
It is time to stop living a double life. We must decide where our ultimate loyalty is. No one can serve two masters. Ultimately, we will end up hating or despising one of them. We cannot serve both God and the ways of the world. Will you submit to the Lord and Creator of the universe? Will you let him be the one and only thing that has mastery over you? By God’s grace this is possible for me, and it is possible for you!
Here is another sermon. I preached this one on September 23, 2007. The Scripture reading was Luke 16:1-13. Sometimes you just feel like the Spirit is blessing your words as you are preaching. I can’t put my finger on it any more than that, but I felt like God was using this sermon on the sunday I preached it. My hope and prayer is that the Lord will use it to bless you.
Click here to listen to this sermon.
I have fallen behind on uploading sermons to my podcast. However, I made some progress this week. I have just uploaded the sermon I preached on September 2, 2007 to my podcast. The Scripture reading for this sermon was Luke 14:1, 7-14. You can click on the deeply committed sermons link on the right, or click here.
I actually posted last Sunday’s sermon to my podcast several days ago, but I forgot to post here about it. That means that if you are already a subscriber to my podcast, you probably have already gotten the sermon. If not, now you know that it is available. As always, you can click on the “deeply committed sermons” link on the right or click here to go directly to the podcast.
The Scripture Reading for Sunday’s sermon was Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus is a guest at Mary and Martha’s house. In life, we are often distracted by many things. As a result, we can forget that nothing is more important than our relationship with Jesus. Martha was reminded of that in this Scripture passage, and through retelling the story – so are we.