I was teaching Sunday School in Birmingham, Alabama while completing my seminary education when the brutal truth of modern Christianity hit me. I was doing lessons on the teachings of Jesus, trying to reorient people who had lived their lives in church to think about what Jesus actually said, rather than the conventional wisdom that churches sometimes pass of as divine revelation. I believe I was talking specifically about the part of Matthew 25 where Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and the future judgement of all people. I said it as clearly as I understood it– Jesus will judge us based how we treat the poorest and “least” among us. Jesus’ words seemed clear to me, and while the majority of the group seemed to accept Jesus’ teaching at face value, one person couldn’t contain his disagreement.
“But what are we actually supposed to do?” he asked.
“Uh, take care of the least among us?” I answered tentatively.
“Well I know what he said, but we can’t really do that. It’s just not realistic. Or fair to us,” he once again volunteered. “I know Jesus said that, but what should we really do?”
I was for a rare moment in my life, speechless. Although I had taken part in many conversations where people had rejected one of Jesus’ teachings or another, I had never had someone say it so overtly. The person who protested what was clear to me was a person who had grown up in the church, his father read Scripture from the pulpit nearly every week, and he had been involved in the higher echelons of church leadership since he was very young.
The young man didn’t come to my class much after that. But the exchange stuck with me.
Some years earlier, when I was a lowly undergraduate myself, I had an unpleasant exchange with a professor at my conservative Baptist university. Our point of debate was allegiance to Jesus above all else. The professor told me quite matter of factually that if he ever found himself in some foreign land, he would deny Jesus if it meant saving his own life. I was floored. Although still a young Christian, I had come to understand that our lives were to be for Jesus’ service, and throughout history that has meant death for thousands of martyrs. Moreover we should not expect to be above such a sacrifice.
My professor scoffed at my argument. “That is just not realistic. That is idealism, and I have no stomach for idealists.” I never really spoke to him after that.
Over the years I have watched many Christian leaders call people to “moderate” their allegiance to Jesus, to take his more radical ideas with a grain of salt. Ironically Jesus seemed to indicate in John 3 that being born again, a given concept for most Christians, was the most radical of all his teachings.
Although it has been said by many others many times before, I do not believe that our domesticated brand of Christianity has any actual similarity to the brand that Jesus lived and died for.
I wonder what would happen if we actually believed all that stuff Jesus said.
If the Harold Camping rapture bust taught us anything, it is that there are a lot of “Christian leaders” out there saying some very crazy things. I actually shudder to read my own writings or listen to my old sermons from the the months before I started formal study of theology. A lot of what I said was, to be honest, just plain wrong. I had heard an idea or read a book and thought something sounded good, or made sense to my own worldview, and I just repeated it. Worse yet, I would read the Bible and then preach about some insight I thought I had, with no real knowledge or insight into what the Bible was actually trying to communicate. I don’t think I should have been allowed to preach and teach before I was educated.
In my native Southern California, there seems to be a sizable number of Christians who dismiss the need for a “professional” clergy, especially in the role of teacher. But this is odd, isn’t it? You would never go to a doctor for treatment who was “self-taught” or proclaimed that they had read a bunch of medical books on their own. Would you? Likewise, even a public high school teacher cannot teach until they have an advanced degree in their field. Lawyers must pass an exam to prove competency in the law before they can legally practice. So why do we believe that an untrained, undereducated Bible teacher can do better? Of course most Christians believe that the Holy Spirit “illuminates” the meaning of Scripture for the reader, and this is something that can never be taught, but that is not an excuse to dedicate yourself to study, as you would in any other field. God gifts some people’s hands to be talented surgeons, but medical school does not then become optional. Are not matters of eternity more vital than matters of the flesh? In many churches that are lax in their interest in the preacher’s training, they have rigorous standards for those who run the “business end” of the church. MBA’s are expected for those who handle the administration, but many of those same churches will argue that formal education is not needed for the person who teaches God’s Word every week.
I recently heard a sermon from a preacher. I do not know him personally; I do not know what his spiritual life is like. I do know that his explanation of the biblical text was flat out wrong. He did not know the historical background of the text (which in this case gave great insight to the reason for the writing). He repeated an old conjecture about the author of the text which is well-known and universally understood by scholars to be a complete fabrication. He then spent the majority of his time painting a picture of something that did not happen, embellishing details and out-rightly making things up to elicit an emotional response. I thought about all the people who would hear the message, and not only would they not hear the message of the text as Christians for 2000 years have understood it, but actually believe things that are not true. What would happen if one of them finds out it was all made up? Will they lose faith in the Bible? Will they believe that God is just as made up? It is thoughts such as these that I never take the pulpit lightly. As a preacher called by God, I am never more terrified of Him than when I am at the pulpit. I know that each word I speak will be judged, not by the crowd, but by God. Church was once a place where people came to hear the very words of God spoken into their lives, but so many jokes, personal anecdotes, and bad interpretations of the Bible have made people skeptical that there is any value in preaching. The bar has been lowered so much that if the preacher makes the crowd laugh, the crowd thinks he or she did well. They believe this because they have never experienced any better. Forgive me if I seek out my laughs from the professionals, comedians and actors. If I am in church I want to hear God!
I know there are many great teachers who cannot attend training, but for the vast majority of American preachers, they have chosen not to. Theological education does not make someone a great preacher. What it does is give a person time to think through ideas, learn from people far smarter than they, and gain from the insights that the Church has accumulated over the last 2000 years. Unless a person believes that God is speaking directly to them with words to say (then there is no need of a Bible at all), a theological education is invaluable, and I just cannot bring myself to listen to the endless controversies and vain speculation more common with the uneducated mind. John Wesley, one of the greatest Christian leaders and thinkers of the last 500 years complained that most preachers of his day were “dullards,” less knowledgeable and skillful in their trade than the local carpenter was in his. He persuaded many young people to become trained in the ministerial arts and science and created a class of professional ministers that greatly affected Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic. Hopefully the 21st century church will follow his path and not the path of complacency and ruin.
I’ve spent yesterday and today looking at the devastation that has wrecked my former home of Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding cities. I find it hard to process the sheer magnitude of it all. For some reason I can look at pictures of tsunami damage in Japan with a comfort of remoteness, but when I see places that I’ve been, streets I’ve driven down, and people I care about afraid, my heart aches and I struggle to find meaning. It is universally human to look for deep meaning in the face of tragedy, and the good news amidst the darkness is that there is meaning indeed. Jesus tells us there is meaning, and that those who suffer do not do so in vain.
Hopefully this short sermon can be a comfort to those hurting, and those looking for answers.
Tornadoes don’t last forever, Jesus does.
You can help the victims of this disaster. CNN has a great guide here.
My first 100% new sermon in over a year! The first in the series, “When God Doesn’t Want to Go To Church,” a sermon based on Malachi 1.
A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ 7 By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. 8 When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. 9 And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. 10 Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. 11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. ~ Malachi 1:6-11 ESV
My first “new” sermon series…
When God Doesn’t Want to Go to Church
An expositional series exploring the concept of “godless” churches… no, seriously.
Strange as it may sound there are several passages about God not wanting to have anything to do with the church. A professor during my undergrad years proposed doing a series on the subject, but of course said it could not be done without offending the people who pay you, so it will never be done. Since I have a few months(?) left before moving into a formal ministry position, I thought it would be the perfect time to do the series.
I was recently asked to provide a preaching sample to a church. I found this old sermon among my files. It was prepared for my professor Dr. Kent Hughes, a preaching legend and someone I believe to be one of the best expositors of God’s word alive today. The class was a short Jan term course of the exposition of the book of Philippians. I caught strep throat and highly medicated during the entire class (which was only a week long), but still managed to produce a sermon for him. I got an amazingly kind letter from him a few weeks later complimenting the work, which to this day gives me goosebumps. I am my toughest critic, but I do think I did a good job explaining a relatively tough text, a task which I believe I have been called to. It’s fairly short, there are no jokes, and I am indeed reading my manuscript, but I wish more preachers would just explain God’s Word and leave it at that. Comments welcome, but be kind or be better!
Not missile strikes, nor dictators, nor earthquakes, nor tsunamis, nor Rob Bell-inspired controversy can separate us from the love of God. For we know that we have been saved through faith, which is a gift from God, not of our own works, so that no one may boast.
Has anyone told you today that God loves you?