10Apr

Sunday’s Sermon - Palms and Passion

Below is a podcast of the sermon I preached on Sunday, April 9, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find other sermons, devotions, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

 

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Matthew 21:1-11

 

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

 

Matthew 27:11-54

 

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!" So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"

 

So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.

 

And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God's Son.'" The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him."

 

Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"

 

Palms and Passion

 

Now, before I start, I recognize that the title of this message, well, I know it’s a little odd. I mean, yesterday, when I looked at it again, it sort of sounds like some kind of exotic perfume or maybe something you could buy at Bath and Body Works. You know, “If you want him to notice you after a long day at work, try a little “Palms and Passion.” But I’ll tell you right up front, it has nothing to do with cologne. 

 

Instead the title has to do with where we choose to focus on this particular Sunday. Let me explain. I think we all know that, during the year, some days have a special religious focus, you know, like Christmas and Pentecost and of course, everybody’s favorite, Stewardship Sunday. In fact, in the next week, we’ll be moving through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday before we get to Easter. And that same sort of thing is happening today. 

 

But this particular Sunday is actually unique, because it can have two focuses. You see, today can either be Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, and of course, when I say “passion”, I’m not talking about anything that involves heavy breathing, but rather the suffering and death of Jesus. Now that’s our choice. 

 

And if we’re focusing on palms, according to the lectionary, we should read the passage I gave you from Matthew 21 and talk about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. But if we’re getting into the passion, we’ve got all that stuff from Matthew 27, scripture that sort of moves Jesus from the last supper to the cross. You see, we can focus on either one this morning, and I’ll tell you, that’s really what I’ve always done. And since in every church I’ve worked, we’ve always had a service on Good Friday, the day we remember the crucifixion, on the Sunday before Easter, palms have always been my theme du jour. In other words, I’ve always done what most churches do and separated the two focuses.

 

And even though that fits well with what the church calendar tells us to do and kids sure look cute carrying in palms, I think there’s a problem when we separate the palms from the passion. Let me tell you what I mean. 

 

If we focus only on the palms, what’s called the triumphant entry, you know, with all the people laying their cloaks on the street before Jesus as they shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”, I’ll tell you, if that’s what we do, it’s not a stretch to see Jesus as this crowd-pleasing king, you know, a popular celebrity who’s sort of playing to the crowds like a candidate at a political rally. And it’s not hard at all to come to the conclusion that maybe that’s why he came, you know, to bring all this excitement and enthusiasm and energy to folks who were tired of living in a grey world. And you know, if that’s who Jesus was and if that’s why he came, then maybe we can best show our faith by doing the same thing ourselves. In other words, maybe we should be out there like the crowds, cutting branches from the trees and throwing our jackets on the street and shouting “Hosannas,” because on Palm Sunday, maybe that’s how we’re suppose to show our faith, right? Well, maybe. 

 

But then think about how that changes, if we use this Sunday to talk about the passion, you know, the condemnation and the suffering and the cross. Well, as the coachmen said to Dorothy, Toto and the rest, that’s a horse of a different color, isn’t it? Sure it is, because now we’ll focus on Jesus as the one who was rejected and condemned and crucified, which means he must have come to suffer and to die; therefore, we can best show our faith in him by being really, and I mean, really sad, maybe even angry that they would do such horrible things to Jesus. My gosh, this is day for solemn meditation and reflection, certainly not an appropriate time to say “hosanna”, not if this is Passion Sunday, and the focus is on suffering and death. But that’s what you’ve got when you separate the themes: on one hand a day for excitement and enthusiasm, because that’s what Jesus came to bring and on the other hand, a time for sadness and anger, because it was Jesus nailed on the cross. 

 

And I’ll tell you, even though these two views, these two different perspectives are certainly in the Biblical story, something very interesting happens when we consider the palms and the passion together. As a matter of fact, when we take these two parts of Jesus’s story and sort of bring them into contact, I think we get a much clearer understanding of who Jesus actually was and is and of why he came and of how we might respond. And I’ll tell you, when we look at the stories, man, this is actually really easy to do. Let me explain.

 

When we consider the palms and the passion together, I think we can get a clearer understanding of who Jesus was for those folks in the story and who is for us right now. I mean, instead of seeing him as either a first century celebrity or a total outcast, when we allow these two stories to inform one another, now we can recognize him as a king who suffers and dies for his people. And like I said, we can see this in both stories. I mean without question, he was viewed as a king as he rode into Jerusalem. In fact, I’ll tell you, that’s the meaning of all this business about “Tell the daughter of Zion, 

Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey”, something we can see in the story of his entry into Jerusalem. You see, Matthew was quoting the Prophet Zechariah, the one who would describe the work of this king with these words: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” [Zechariah 9:10] You see, as written by Matthew, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king, and even though those who cheered him on would later say about him, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” the words “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”, man, they sure sound royal to me. And even in the passion part of the story, the sign that they nailed to the cross read “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 

 

I’ll tell you, according to both stories, we’re shown that Jesus is a king, but not the kind we’d expect, because rather than entering the city on a white stallion, Jesus was humble, something rulers rarely are, riding on a donkey. And even though they thought they were being cute and clever by writing his charges on the sign the way they did, we know they were right. I mean, under that ironic sign, that was absolutely correct, hung the King of the Jews who suffered and died for his people. You see, when we bring the palms and passion together, we can understand who Jesus was and is; he’s the king who suffers and dies for his people. 

 

And along with that, I think we can also get a much clearer understanding of why Jesus came. You see, when we look at just the entry by itself, we might get the idea that Jesus came to win over the crowds, you know, to get folks all fired up and excited, but that’s really not what Jesus encouraged when he entered Jerusalem. I mean, think about what happened; although the crowds were shouting and throwing stuff, something you might do for a king, Jesus wasn’t waving. He wasn’t pumping his fist. He wasn’t even acknowledging what they were saying. Instead he was silent, not unlike what Isaiah said about the one he called the suffering servant. He wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” [Isaiah 53:6-8] You see, according to Matthew, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he didn’t say a word. And I’ll tell you, those crowds who were shouting “hosanna,” they weren’t won over by him at all, because in less than a week, they were standing in the court of the Pilate, the Roman governor, shouting, “Let him be crucified!” No, Jesus didn’t come to get on the good side of the crowds. 

 

Instead he came to do something else. You see, Jesus came to save them, something that they were really seeking but didn’t know it, when they shouted “hosanna”, because that’s really what the word means in Hebrew, “save us.” And I’ll tell you, that’s exactly what he did on that cross. He won’t save himself, you know, like they told him to do, but rather he’ll save those who drove the nails and who hurled the insults. And I think we can see this by what happened when Jesus died. According to Matthew, “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God's Son!’” [Matthew 27:50-54] You see, Jesus didn’t come to win over the crowds; man, he came to save them. And that’s something else we can understand when we bring the palms and passion together.

 

And finally, that really leads us to how we might respond, you know, how we might respond to this different kind of king who came to save his people. And I think we can do this; we can respond in two ways. For example, first, we can respond by simply thanking and praising God for entering our time and space and becoming the messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, in other words, the king. You see, we can thank him that the separation between God and us was ripped apart when Jesus died on the cross. And we can thank him that, at that moment, everything changed, the whole universe was shaken, and the possibility of a new kind of life was a reality. And we can thank him that we’ll never have to say “hosanna” ever again, because our salvation has been accomplished. I’m telling you, first, we can respond by thanking God. 

 

And second, as we’re offering our thanks and praise, we can make a conscious decision simply to do what we’ve been called to do, and the only way to do it is to know it. And the only way to know it is to read about it in this book. Now, I’m not going to blow any smoke, there’s a lot of stuff here in the Bible, and I don’t think there’s any way to know it other than to read and to study it. Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and minds and hearts so that we can see and understand and feel, but give me a break, we shouldn’t blame God for our Biblical ignorance if we choose not to read it, anymore than I should blame God for me not winning the lottery if I’m not willing to buy a ticket. If we’re serious about doing what God’s called us to do, it’s right here in The Bible, which actually means in Greek, “the book.” And that’s another way we can respond. When we move the palms and passion together, I think we get a clearer understanding of how we might respond.

 

And I’ll tell you, that’s what we did this morning. Instead of separating the significance of Palm Sunday and the Passion, we let the two stories sort of inform one another. And as a result, I hope we all got a clearer understanding of who Jesus was and is and why he came and how we might respond. And this was possible by bringing together the palms and the passion.

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8Apr

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - As We Think We Are

Below is the podcast of a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find a recording of this devotion on the prayer line (1-304-748-7900). You can find other devotions, sermons, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

 

If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Romans 11:25-36

 

So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, 

”Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; 

          he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” 

“And this is my covenant with them, 

          when I take away their sins.” 

As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

 

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 

“For who has known the mind of the Lord? 

          Or who has been his counselor?” 

“Or who has given a gift to him, 

          to receive a gift in return?” 

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.

 

As We Think We Are

 

Occasionally, my wife will remind me of something that’s extremely accurate but that I often forget. You see, after I think I’ve been remarkably clever in something I’ve said to her, she’ll smiled and say words that I should probably have engraved on my tombstone: “Ed, you’re not as funny as you think you are.” Now that’s what she says, and I’ll tell you, she’s right. And that’s something I really need to remember, because there have been more than a few times when I’ve said something I thought was extremely funny, but actually hurt the feelings of someone I had absolutely no intention of hurting.

 

And I mention this because I think Paul reminds us that the same thing can happen when we’re talking about our spiritual knowledge. As he wrote, “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery...” and then he explained that God had hardened the hearts of the Jews so that the Gentile might enter the faith. Now he recognized that we wouldn’t understanding this. In fact, when he wrote, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!,” I think he was suggesting that he didn’t totally understand all the whys and hows himself. But that’s really OK. You see, God is in charge even when we’re just not as smart as we think we are.

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7Apr

Friday’s Essay - Palm/Passion Sunday

Below is the podcast of an essay that I sent to those on the Cove Presbyterian Church e-mailing list. You can find other essays, sermons, devotions, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.



If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal

 

Sunday is an interesting day on the church calendar. You see, it can be celebrated in two different ways. On one hand, it’s Palm Sunday, the day Christians remember Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. On the other hand, though, it can also be Passion Sunday, that Sunday before Easter when we focus on the crucifixion. 

 

Now, in terms of mood, these two days seem to be polar extremes. I mean, when Jesus rode that donkey as folks waved palms and put on the road branches and cloaks, this marked a high point in his earthly ministry. While the crowds had been standing on the noncommital edge, now they’d gathered on the road into Jerusalem shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” According to Matthew’s gospel, “when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” This was a time of incredible joy. And that’s why it shocking that within a week, Jesus would be betrayed, denied, arrested, tried, convicted, and nailed to a cross. And the crowd that called him “the Son of David,” they would be standing in Pilate’s court and shouting,“Let him be crucified!” Now, both these ideas are present on this day.

 

And you know, I think that’s appropriate. I mean, it’s easy for us to separate them, not only the stories but their impact on our lives. We can focus on the triumphant Christ, the “king of Israel,” the one who will establish his kingdom on earth just like it is on heaven. And we can approach this Christ with all our hopes and dreams, and we can expect him to satisfy us by granting them all. And when it happens, we can be content, knowing that we’ve received what we wanted; but when it doesn’t, we can leave disappointed and irritated, because we didn’t get what we deserve. If it’s all palms and “hosannas,” that’s what we can expect. 

 

Of course, we can also focus on the other extreme and see Jesus through the eyes of Mel Gibson. And we can concentrate on the pain, forgetting that in the Roman world, tens of thousands of people endured the same torture faced by Jesus, including the two who were crucified with him. In fact, we can focus so much on the pain that we lose sight that Jesus came to save not just endure, and the cross is the ultimate sign of victory, not defeat.

 

And I think that’s the reason we need to celebrate Palm/Passion Sunday, because both imagines are true, but without the other, each is incomplete. You see, the one who came as the mighty son of David was also the anguished lamb of God, the one who was hung on a cross to save the people who drove the nails. The triumphant one suffered, and the one who suffered was made triumphant. That’s what we have when we combine these ideas. And if we’re able to do that, we’ll realize that we have a savior who knows exactly how we feel on both our best and worst days.

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6Apr

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - Before We Jump

Below is a podcast of a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find a recording of this devotion on the prayer line (1-304-748-7900). You can find other devotions, sermons, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

 

If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Romans 11:7-12

 

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them;  let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent.”

 

So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!

 

Before We Jump

 

I think most people could be classified as conclusion jumpers, because most of us love to take this kind of conclusive leap on the flimsiest reasons. For instance, we hear something that someone heard someone else say about someone we used to know, and we start jumping. I mean, we assume that the person talking actually knows the situation; therefore, what’s being said is the gospel truth. And because of that, we assume that all the information is correct, even though it’s all based on what someone said that they thought they heard someone else say. But we haven’t stopped jumping yet, because now, based on two sets of assumptions that certainly are questionable at best, we react to what we assume that we know. And in other words, we respond, we defend, we attack, or we distance ourselves from a person or situation based solely on a string of assumptions. You see, we’ve jumped and landed right in the middle of a big, fat conclusion. And suddenly, whether or not the conclusion is justified is irrelevant. We’ve made it real by our leap, not of faith, but of assumptions.

 

And I’ll tell you, it’s bad enough when we do this kind of thing in our relationships with others; it’s a disaster when we do it with respect to God. You see, even though we may not like to admit it, we just don’t know the will of God, and we don’t know how he regards the people around us. But when we assume that we know and that he includes folks we like and excludes folks we don’t because of a set of assumptions that are questionable, we’ve used this conclusion to distort our relationship with our brothers and sisters and our God. And for that reason, when it comes to conclusions, we might want to pause, think and pray before we jump.

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6Apr

Cove’s Worship Service - April 2, 2017

Below is the podcast of the service I lead on Sunday, April 2, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. It's the last service  in a series entitled, "Why: Answering Some of Life's Hard Questions."

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4Apr

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - If/Then

Below is the podcast of a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find a recording of this devotion on the prayer line (1-304-748-7900). You can other devotions, sermons, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

 

If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


Romans 10:5-13

 

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?

     “The word is near you,

          on your lips and in your heart”

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

If/Then

 

When I was much younger, I learned about conditional, “if/then” sentences. And the reason they’re called conditional is really simple. When certain conditions are met, as indicated by what comes after the “if”, a certain result will following, as indicated by what follows the “then.” For example, if I’m able to get this devotion written and recorded, then I’ll be happy. In other words, my happiness will be determined by my ability to get the job done. This is what conditional sentences are all about.

 

And you know, we have one in the passage I just read from Romans: “...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, [then] you will be saved.” Of course, the condition here involves confession and belief. And the result, well, that’s a recognition of salvation. Put another way, when we recognize that Jesus was telling the trust and when we believe that through him our past has been cleansed and our future secured and when we trust that regardless of how challenging life becomes, God holds our destinies in him loving and merciful hands, then we’ll understand what salvation is all about. We’ll be able to live in the present with peace and face the future with hope. We’ll have a good reason to relax, knowing that regardless of what we’ve done or who we’ve been, God will take care of us. If we trust in Christ, then we’ll also be able to trust in God. And since this condition is based on a decision that everybody can make, this is one “if/then” statement that’s within the reach of all of us.

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3Apr

Sunday’s Sermon - Why doesn’t God make things clear?

Below is a podcast of the sermon I preached on Sunday, April 2, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. It's the fourth message in a series entitled, "Why: Answering Some of Life's Hard Questions." You can find other sermons, devotions, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

 

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Well, this morning, we’re going to tie up this five-week series dealing with some of life’s more challenging questions. And I’ve got to tell you, I’m a little nervous about this particular message, and I say that for three reasons. I mean, first, after winning four straight national championships and 111 straight games, Friday night the Uconn Lady Huskies lost to Mississippi State, a team they beat 98-38 last year, which means we’ve entered the end times and anything can happen. And second, this is my last message before Palm Sunday and Easter, which means a lot may be riding on what I say today. But the third and by far the most important reason I’m a little tense is that, yesterday afternoon, when she came to change the sign, our sweet, upbeat, cheerful Heather Campbell said to me, “The sermon tomorrow better be good.” Yikes. And so the pressure’s on.

 

But you know, she’s probably right, I mean since this is the end of the series, man, I’m sure hoping this sermon doesn’t lay an egg, even an Easter egg. Of course, by this point, we’ve already looked at four different questions. For example, during week one, we talked about why bad things happen to good people, and we looked at how, when we accept that we've been cleansed and that, in the future, we'll be saved and that right now God is with us, well, maybe we can live with this question regardless of the reason. And in the next message, we focused on why it seems as though people don’t understand us, and as we talked about it, we sort of came to the conclusion that, even though some folks either can't or won't, there are others who want to understand what we’re feeling because they’ve been through the same kind of thing themselves. And then, in the third message, we focused on why there are times when we really don’t understand what's going on ourselves, and we talked about how it may be easier to understand this particular “why” when we accept our limits and broaden our vision and of course, trust our God. And then last week, we considered what I think is one of the toughest questions we face, and I’m talking about why God may be allowing bad things to happen to us? And as we looked at this, we considered how we may never get the kind of answer we really want. Still, just asking the question shows that we believe God really is in control and that maybe some of the discouragement and frustration and confusion we feel can be reduced when we simply make the decision to trust that the one in charge actually loves us. Now that’s what we’ve covered so far.

 

 And this morning, we’re going to look at the fifth and final question: Why doesn’t God make things clear, you know, so that we can understand? And although that really doesn’t seem to be a problem for Job, I’ve got to tell you, it would for me. Of course, that may show that I’m not on Job’s spiritual level, but give me a break. I mean, good night nurse, Job has been suffering for nearly forty chapters. And even though he didn’t understand why, he definitely knew that his friends we’re dead wrong when they said that it was because he’d done something wrong and he just wouldn’t fess-up. No, Job didn’t buy what they were selling. Instead he wanted God to come down and explain why all this was happening. And remember, like we talked about last week, God finally did, but he didn’t give the kind of answer Job wanted. Instead, God said the kind of stuff printed in your bulletin. For example, he said, “Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you; it eats grass like an ox. Its strength is in its loins, and its power in the muscles of its belly. It makes its tail stiff like a cedar; the sinews of its thighs are knit together. Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like bars of iron.” What the heck does that have to do with why Job’s suffering? And then he said, “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it make many supplications to you? Will it speak soft words to you? Will it make a covenant with you to be taken as your servant forever? Will you play with it as with a bird, or will you put it on leash for your girls?” Really, Leviathan? Now that’s the kind of stuff God said from the storm. And according to what was written here, after God finished, Job said, and these are his last words, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” That’s what Job said. Of course, I understand what God was getting at in his speech from the whirlwind, you know, that since Job wasn’t God he’ll never fully understand how the universe works. In other words, there will always be mysteries.

 

But after all he’d been through, if I’d been Job, I’m not sure I’d have been despising myself and repenting in dust and ashes, not without a few follow-up questions. My gosh, I seriously doubt that I’d have found much satisfaction with God’s response. But you know, regardless of whether or not I or we find what God said satisfying, this may be the only answer we’ve got and frankly, I think it does reflect the nature of the world in which we live. I mean, let’s face it, we live in a world that lacks a lot of clarity, a world in which things are constantly changing whether we want them to or not. And it seems that every change starts a whole new row of dominoes falling. And sometimes it feels as though the last one is falling on us. And I’ll tell you, it’s because of this lack of clarity that we end up asking the questions we’ve been asking, you know, like why do bad things happen to good people and why don’t people understand me; why don’t I understand what’s going on and why is God allowing this to happen to me? And even though we may devote our entire lives, and I’m talking about every waking moment, asking God why he’s not making this world and our lives in it more clear; at best, I think we usually get the same kind of answer Job got, but we won’t even get that if we’re not listening.

 

In other words, when it feels as though we’re looking at ourselves and what we’re facing and we’re doing that  wearing prescription glasses that are way, and I’m talking about way too strong, when that’s what we feel is happening, we may have to come to grips with the fact that that just may be the way it is. I mean, like it or not, we live in a world that lacks clarity, a world of changes that we don’t like, a world of mysteries we don’t understand. And no matter how hard we try to figure it out or pray that God explain it to us, man, we may never have the answers we may want to life’s most challenging questions. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

 

But even though that may be true, I believe there’s something we can do about it. And even though it’s not going to provide the neat and clean answers we may want, it may enable us to live in a world where things often seem a little obscure and ambiguous and confused. You see, I think we can accept God’s words from the whirlwind and live in a world that lacks clarity, if we can keep our focus on three things, and let me briefly share with you what they are.

 

For example, first, we can intentionally focus on the Father who loves us, and when I say “Father” I’m talking about God, the Father. And I think he has shown and continues to show that love by being both our creator and our guide. You see, it was God who brought order out of chaos. As it says at the beginning of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” [Genesis 1:1-3] You see, right here, God created order in the midst of water, an ancient symbol for chaos. And it was God who guided the children of Israel from Egypt into their promised land. According to Exodus, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.” [Exodus 13:21] Now that’s what God did. And for me, this is important for us to remember, and I’ll tell you why. When we feel confused by things that we might never be able to understand, God the Father is the one on whom we need to focus. In other words, we need to focus on the one who stills brings order out of chaos, whether it’s the primordial waters before creation or the turmoil that we can feel within our own lives when things suddenly go drastically wrong. And the Father is the one who, like a good shepherd, continues to guide us not only to green pastures and still waters, but also through the valley of the shadow of death to life on the other side. I’ll tell you, because things are sometime kind of on the vague side, we need to focus on our Father and his constant and eternal love for us. That’s one.

 

And second, I think it’s also important for us to focus on the Son who saves us: saves us from the mistakes we’ve made in the past, saves us to face the future with hope, and saves us to become everything we were created to be right now. And I’ll tell you, that’s exactly what we’re going to remember the next couple of weeks. Now I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again. When Jesus died on that cross, we died too. And because we died in him, we’ve been set free: free from slavery to sin, free from those things that kept us anchored to the past and free from assumptions about ourselves that prevent us from looking to the future. On the cross, we’ve been set free. And when he was raised, raised by the power of God, we got a pretty good vision of our future. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” [1 Corinthians 15:20-22]. Man, that’s our future. But more than that, his resurrection gives us a taste of what life can be like right now. And I think this is what Paul was getting at when he wrote to the Romans, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” [Romans 6:4] I’ll tell you, because there are times when it may feel like we’re surround by a fog, I believe we need to focus on the Son and the salvation that he brings. And that’s two.

 

And third, when life seems indistinct and unclear, that’s when I think we need to focus on the Spirit that inspires. Now, in case y’all don’t know this, “inspiration” refers to something that’s “breathed in.” And according to scripture, the Holy Spirit does that for us in two very definite ways. You see, it fills us with an understanding of both the Father and the Son. I mean, just listen to what Jesus himself said: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” [John 16:13-14] You see, the Spirit becomes like a teacher, but that’s not all. He also equips us to do what we were created and called to do. And this is what Paul understood when he wrote, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. [1 Corinthians 12:4-7] When the world and our place in it seems unclear, that’s when we need to focus on the Spirit and the inspiration it offers.

 

Now we’re about done with the last message in this series, and I’ll tell you, I’m feeling much more relaxed, but not because I’ve found solid ground after the order of the basketball universe was shaken or because I’ve ended it all on a high pre-Palm Sunday note or even because I’m sure I haven’t disappointed sister Heather Campbell. As a matter of fact, when it comes to the questions we’ve considered, well, the answer, “I don’t know why” has come up more than frankly I find satisfying. And now that we’re done, I still find myself asking, “God, why don’t you make things more clear?” I guess the world just lacks the clarity I’d like it to have. That’s just the way it is. But you know, the more I keep my focus on the Father who loves and the Son who saves and the Spirit that inspires, the more I just may be able to live with that wonderful word, “why.”

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1Apr

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - Mercy and Compassion

Below is the podcast of a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find a recording of this devotion on the prayer line (1-304-748-7900). You can find other devotions, sermons, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog.  You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church informationIf you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Romans 9:6-16

 

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” As it is written, 

     “I have loved Jacob, 

          but I have hated Esau.”

 

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, 

     “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, 

          and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 

So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.

 

Mercy and Compassion

 

Of all the passages in the Bible, I think this is one of the most frustrating; therefore, it’s also one of the most avoided and explained away. I mean, all this business about loving Jacob and hating Esau, what’s that suppose to mean? If we take it at face value, it suggests something about God that most Christian don’t want to believe. You see, most American believers assume that God’s will is a lot like a free market economy. If you work hard and do all the stuff you’re suppose to do, you like, like accept all you’re supposed to accept and give all you’re suppose to give, God will reward you with grace and salvation. In the end, you get what you pay for, right? But if God loves some and hates others “before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call)”, man, that can’t be right. Our whole salvation system collapses. And so this is a passage to avoid and ignore. And if that’s not possible, we soften it by including a little foreknowledge, that’s not mentioned by Paul, to justify saying that both Esau and Jacob actually got what they deserved.

 

But before we either turn the page or spin Paul’s words so that they say what we want them to say, let’s pause intentionally and remember that after he wrote about love and hate, Paul anticipated our problem and said, “Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” In other words, God’s ultimate will is always mercy and compassion: not mercy and misery or condemnation and compassion, but rather mercy and compassion. Which means that how God regarded Jacob and Esau was all about God accomplishing his will. In other words, because God chose to love Jacob, Esau and his descendants ultimately received mercy and compassion. And this is something we need to remember, when we assume that we can control God’s grace and excludes folks whom we don’t like from his gift of salvation.

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31Mar

Friday’s Essay - He Just Does

Below is the podcast of an essay that I sent to those on the Cove Presbyterian Church e-mailing list. You can find other essays, sermons, devotions, articles, and announcements in The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

 

If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal

 

On Sunday, we’re finishing up our series that focused on some of life challenging questions. And over the last four weeks we’ve considered the following: 

•Why do bad things happen to good people?

•Why don't people understand me?

•Why don't I understand what's going on?

•Why is God allowing this to happen?

And this Sunday, the last one before we enter Easter week, we’ll look at the question: Why doesn't God make things clear? Now, for each, we’ve used the story of Job for some direction as we grappled with the question. And as the one who wrote and delivered each one, I’ve been pleased with how we’ve covered the issues.

 

Of course, if you’ve come to more than one of the services, you probably recognize that one less than satisfying theme has been present throughout the series. I mean, one of the answers you’ve heard for each of the questions has been that wonderful response, “I don’t know.” And I’ll tell you, that’s something I’ve either explicitly stated or implied every single week. For example, even though good people sometimes bring bad things on themselves and sometimes others bring this stuff to them, in other situations, I don’t know why good people suffer; they just do. And even though some people can and will understand us while others won’t, I don’t know why the “won’ts” won’t; they just won’t. And I can say the same thing about our lack of understanding and the divine will. Again, in many situations, there are definite reasons. But in others, I just don’t know why we can’t understand or why an omnipotent God allows certain things to happen. I just don’t know; we just don’t and he just does.

 

And I’ve got to admit, I haven’t found that answer particularly satisfying. Even though I believe it’s true, I’d prefer to have some reason I can understand, some reason that makes sense, some reason in which I might find some satisfaction. Frankly, I’m a little frustrated by the ambiguity I’m forced both to face and to accept. As a matter of fact, I really don’t see me being like Job, finding satisfaction with the idea that God is God and I’m not; therefore, there are plenty of things that people will never understand. Although I have doubt that I would have been cowered by the sheer power of a voice from the whirlwind,  I don’t think I’d be willing simply to accept this answer. Somehow, when faced with life’s more challenging questions, hearing someone say “I don’t know; it just is”, well that’s a little like being at the end of a buffet line and finding there’s only vegetables left. It’s an answer but not very satisfying.

 

And even though that’s just what happens when we deal with some of life’s “whys”, there’s a slew of related questions for which this is a wonderful answer, and I’m talking about questions like, “Why does God love us?’ and “Why is this love constant even when we prove to be weak?” and “Why has he decided to lead us into a glorious future, one that we didn’t earn and that we don’t deserve?” You see, these are the kind of questions for which I find extremely satisfying the often unsatisfying answer, “I don’t know; he just does.”

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28Mar

A New Devotion on Cove’s Prayer Line - More Like Paul than We Might Expect

Below is the podcast of a new devotion I just left on the Cove Presbyterian Church prayer line. You can find a recording of this devotion on the prayer line (1-304-748-7900). You can other devotions, sermons, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. 

 

If you find this meaningful, please consider sending an offering directly to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

 

Romans 7:13-25

 

Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

 

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will 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. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

 

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

 

More Like Paul than We Might Expect

 

You know, it’s easy both to be impressed and intimidated by the great men and women in the Bible. I mean, they risked so much for the sake of their faith, and they stood firm in the face of persecution and death in order to share with others the love and grace they’d experienced. Now, this strength and courage is certainly impressive, while at the same time it might also be pretty intimidating. You see, in our society, we face far less opposition and far fewer situations in which we’re called to put up or shut-up, at least as it relates to Jesus. And so, as we read about everything these great Christians did, it’s easy for us to feel second-rate.

 

But before we buy into this perspective, I think this passage reminds us that we may be more like Paul than we might expect. You see, just like us, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, a man who faced death for the sake of the truth, struggled with sin. And like us, he found that he seemed unable to do the things that he knew were right. Instead, he constantly slide into living the kind of life that was wrong. And like us, there were times when he was frustrated by his inability to be the kind of Christian God had called him to be; therefore, he found himself relying on God and his grace to save him. This is something that we share with that super Christian, Paul.

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