A GOOD SERMON

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke and encourage your people with good teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. … Work at telling the Good News and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. [2 Timothy 4:2-4,5b (NLT)]

fish vreek falls - COIn a Dennis the Menace comic strip (drawn by Marcus Hamilton), Dennis is sitting next to his father at church. As their offering envelope is dropped in the plate, he asks his father, “Can we get a refund if the sermon isn’t that good?” For Dennis and many church-goers, a good sermon is one that is pleasant and entertaining. Unlike movies and concerts, however, sermons aren’t meant to be entertainment. The Christian church is neither the “church of what’s happening now” nor the church of “anything goes.” While many messages can make us feel good, feeling good is not the purpose of the Good News.

As much as the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and others looked forward to hearing from the Apostle Paul, I doubt any of the early churches were entertained by his letters while they were read to the congregation. While he always had words of encouragement for the church, the intense Apostle appears to have had no sense of humor and his words were often ones of conviction and correction. False ideologies were corrected, sins of immorality were confronted, and proper behavior was addressed. Corinthian church members probably squirmed in their seats when Paul’s letters took them to task for infighting, abusing the Lord’s Supper, and their wanton behavior. When Paul told the Galatians they’d perverted the gospel of grace, surely not everyone welcomed his words. He unreservedly admonished the new churches for such things as false beliefs, divisiveness, lax morals, and questionable motives in preaching.

Although Paul’s words in his epistles are knowledgeable, articulate, and passionate, he admitted that he was a poor speaker [2 Cor. 11:6]. Some of the Corinthians even complained about his weak appearance and worthless speeches! [2 Cor. 10:10] Paul wasn’t an eloquent orator or an imposing figure and he probably wouldn’t have won a popularity with his messages. Nevertheless, apart from Jesus Himself, no one influenced the history of the Christian church more than Paul. Because of his words, the early church not only survived but thrived through persecution and troubled times. The 21st Century church faces many of those same problems—internal conflict, hypocrisy, questionable doctrine, arrogance, and a dumbing down instead of raising up. Without some tough love from our pulpits, can we survive and thrive?

Watered-down “feel good” messages that don’t condemn sin or challenge us to grow more like Christ are not the sort of epistles Paul would have written. They certainly aren’t the sort of messages Jesus gave. Yes, He spoke of peace, love and forgiveness, but Jesus also made people uneasy when He spoke of things like sacrifice, hypocrisy, obedience, repentance, taking up one’s cross, future persecution, and God’s judgment. With a sermon like that, Dennis might choose to demand a refund.

Let’s never forget that a good pastor is as zealous as was the Apostle Paul. His job is to shepherd his flock—to warn, correct, educate, rescue, convict, set goals, lead, and protect as well as to comfort, nurture and encourage. His job is not to make us happy; it is to guide us on the path to salvation. His job isn’t to preach only good news; it is to preach the gospel which is the Good News of Christ. It may not always be the news we want to hear; nevertheless, it is the news we need to hear.

It is far better to be plain in speech, yet walking openly and consistently with the gospel, than to be admired by thousands, and be lifted up in pride… [Matthew Henry]

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. [Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)]

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FROM THE BEGINNING (Part 3)

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. [1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NLT)]

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  [Philippians 2:6-7 (NLT)]

oxeye daisyStarting with the Judaizers who believed that Gentiles first had to be circumcised and conform to Mosaic Law in order to be saved, the early church faced controversy within its ranks. Without a creed, they were challenged with distinguishing between true and false doctrines. Although not written by the Apostles, an early version of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed was probably in use by the last half of the second century. Created to instruct converts and prepare them for baptism, because it didn’t clearly state the nature of Jesus’ divinity or define the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, doctrinal controversy continued. Along with Gnosticism’s rejection of the incarnation and Marcion’s redefinition of God, there were the Ebionites’ denial of Christ’s divinity, the Arians’ belief that Jesus was neither divine nor eternal, and the Modalists who collapsed the persons of the Trinity into a single person with three types of activity. Rather than destroy the early church, however, these various isms actually did it a favor by forcing it to solidify Christianity’s doctrines.

In an attempt to unify the Christian church with one doctrine, Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in 325. Over 900 leaders from throughout the Roman Empire gathered to discuss Arianism and its belief that while Jesus was similar to God, rather than being divine, He was a created being. Although the Creed of Nicea resulted, controversy still reigned and it took a second ecumenical council in 381 before the Church clearly defined the Trinity—that God is three distinct persons in one perfectly unified being. The Nicene Creed, the standard of belief for most Christian churches, was the result of the meeting.

That creed, however, did not come out of thin air. The bishops and delegates spent weeks poring over Scripture. Paul’s epistles, written between 50 and 60 AD, contain several hymns and creeds. Although he wrote in Greek, these hymns and creeds use features of Hebrew poetry and thought and their syntax is decidedly Aramaic which leads scholars to believe they date from as early as 33 to 48 AD. Paul specifically wrote that he was passing along what was passed on to him—most likely from the original Apostles and Jesus Himself. A common theme of these early writings is the death, resurrection, and the deity of Jesus. Contrary to the claim often made by skeptics that the story of Jesus was a legend that arose decades after the man’s death, the belief in a miracle-working, fully divine and fully human Jesus, who died and rose from the dead, was present from the time of His disciples—the very ones who touched, walked, talked, and ate with Him, both before His crucifixion and after His resurrection.

Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say I am?” [Matthew 16:15] With its summary of the Gospel in a few sentences, the Nicene Creed enables us to answer that question both succinctly and accurately.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. [Colossians 1:15-18 (NLT)]

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith: Christ was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit. He was seen by angels and announced to the nations. He was believed in throughout the world and taken to heaven in glory. [1 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)]

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HERESIES – Polycarp (Part 2)

So, then, just as you received King Jesus the Lord, you must continue your journey in him. You must put down healthy roots in him, being built up brick by brick in him, and established strongly in the faith, just as you were taught, with overflowing thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6 (NTE)]

cross in ZermattAlthough many Christian writings refer to Polycarp, only one of his letters remains. Written to the church at Philippi sometime before 150 AD. Polycarp addressed the behavior of a greedy bishop named Valens, explained that true righteousness sprang from true belief, and warned against false teachings. Containing 12 quotes from the Old Testament and 100 quotes or paraphrases from the New, this epistle has been described as a “mosaic of quotations” from the Bible. Using language from what now are known as the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 and 3 John, his letter is testimony both to the existence of these texts by mid-2nd century and that the early church already believed them to be inspired Scripture.

In his letter, Polycarp addressed the heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism that had found their way into the early church. Probably a greater threat to the early church than persecution, Gnosticism was a combination of religion and philosophy taken from Babylonian beliefs, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and assorted cults, along with the philosophies of Greeks like Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. In a nutshell, early Gnostics believed in dual realities — essence/spirit/light (considered good) and material/body/dark (considered evil) — much like the Chinese yin and yang. They also believed in the secret knowledge or gnosis of salvation. Of course, such a philosophy can’t really be put in a nutshell. Polycarp’s student Irenaeus (who later became bishop of Lyons) said this about Gnostics, “Since their teachings and traditions are different, and the newer ones among them claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before, it is hard to describe their views.” According to Gnosticism, since God is a spirit (which is good) and the world is made of matter (which is evil), the world couldn’t have been created by a good God; rather, it was created by a lesser deity named Demiurge. Believing flesh evil, they rejected the incarnation; rather than Christ coming as flesh, Gnostics believed He took possession of the man Jesus’ body at his baptism and departed his body before the crucifixion. Believing salvation came through secret knowledge to a select few contradicted Christianity’s promise of salvation to all by grace through faith.

Marcion (85-160 AD) was an influential Gnostic who tried to create a “new brand” of Christianity (Marcionism). In a nutshell, Marcionism redefined God. Rejecting Old Testament teachings, Marcion claimed the God of the Old Testament was not the same deity as the God of the New, Jesus was the son only of the New Testament God, and the prophecies of the Old Testament predicted a yet-to-come earthly messiah for the Jews. Marcion discarded the entire Old Testament and, believing the Apostles misunderstood Jesus, cut the New Testament down to heavily edited versions of Luke’s gospel and just ten of Paul’s letters.

In his letter, Polycarp warned the Philippians that “whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning.” May we do the same!

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. [Augustine]

Watch out that nobody uses philosophy and hollow trickery to take you captive! These are in line with human tradition, and with the ‘elements of the world’ – not the king. In him, you see, all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence. What’s more, you are fulfilled in him, since he’s the head of all rule and authority. [Colossians 2:8-10 (NTE)]

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LOOK FOR IT!

Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. Hymenaeus and Alexander are two examples. I threw them out and handed them over to Satan so they might learn not to blaspheme God. [1 Timothy 1:19-20 (NLT)]

mimosa1 Timothy doesn’t tell us much about Hymenaeus or Alexander—the men whose faith was shipwrecked. From Paul’s other references to the men, we do know that Hymenaeus denied the doctrine of the resurrection and that Alexander did “much harm” to Paul, but we don’t know the details. Whatever these men said or did, by accusing them of blasphemy and handing them “over to Satan,” Paul seemed to be excommunicating them from the church.

In theological terms, Paul was writing about apostasy, coming from the Greek apostanai meaning “to stand away.” When someone commits apostasy or becomes apostate, they renounce or abandon their faith in Christ. Like Hymenaeus and Alexander, believers can lose their way and even fall. After all, Peter denied Jesus three times and Thomas had his moments of doubt. Every fall, however, doesn’t mean apostasy. Unlike Hymenaeus and Alexander, Peter and Thomas never fell beyond the point of no return. When Peter repented and Thomas’ doubts were assuaged, their relationship with Jesus was fully restored. But, what of those who don’t repent or whose doubt turns to unbelief? Is it possible to lose our faith?

Recently, my husband lost his wedding ring. As soon as he noticed his empty finger, we revisited every place he’d been and searched high and low in every store and parking lot. At home, we sifted through our waste baskets, carefully inspected the car, looked in every nook and cranny in house and garage, and even checked the garbage disposal. There’s not a spot we haven’t examined and more than one prayer was said but, alas, the ring has disappeared. My husband feels awful about the loss but I reminded him that it’s just a piece of metal that can be replaced. Although it symbolized our marriage, he didn’t lose that; we still have what’s important—each other. Be that as it may, I admit searching for it again today!

If we’re willing to turn our house upside down, rifle through the trash can, and drive all over town in search of a ring, I don’t understand the person whose excuse for no longer attending church is that he simply lost his faith. “Go look for it!” is my response. “Where were you when you last had it? Go back there and start looking!” I’d suggest starting in church, the Bible, in prayer with God, and in conversation with mature Christians. Unlike a wedding ring, which is a mere symbol of a relationship (and a replaceable one at that), faith in Jesus is an irreplaceable relationship.

At one time or another, we all will have crises of faith. There will be times we are overwhelmed with troubling questions about things like evil, pain, and suffering; the world of the Old Testament; or the truth of Scripture. There certainly are times we’re disappointed in God and want to know “why?” Like Thomas, it’s only normal to have doubts but doubt is not disbelief. The real issue isn’t doubt, it’s what we do with that doubt. Do we call out to God and seek the answers to our questions or do we simply give up and say we’ve lost our faith?

Scripture seems to make the case that once we’re saved (by God’s grace through our faith), we remain saved—we can’t lose our salvation. When people claim to have lost their faith, I wonder if they ever truly had it—whether they were true believers in the first place. After all, calling oneself a Ford and sitting in the garage doesn’t make you a car any more than calling oneself a Christian and sitting in a pew on Sundays makes you a believer! I can’t know if a person who’s “lost” his faith is an apostate like Hymenaeus and Alexander, is having a crisis of faith, or if he ever truly had faith. I can’t see into a person’s soul and only God truly knows the status of anyone’s salvation. What I do know is that God isn’t playing hide-and-seek; unlike my husband’s ring, He’s right in front of us and waiting to be found! Let us never stop seeking Him!

Faith is not the complete absence of doubts. Faith is trusting even in the presence of doubt – even when I don’t understand. [Chris Goswami]

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.” [Isaiah 65:1a (NLT)]

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JUST DO IT (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 2)

And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25:40 (RSV)]

brown pelicanWhen writing about the Good Samaritan yesterday, I recalled being asked who represents Jesus in the parable. The most obvious answer appears to be the Samaritan. After all, love that unlimited and sacrificial had to have been supernatural. The parallels are somewhat obvious—both men were merciful, compassionate, paid another man’s debt, promised to return, and were despised and rejected by the Jews. In fact, early commentators like Irenaeus, Clement, Augustine, and Origen found all sorts of allegorical meaning in the story with the injured man representing Adam, the bandits Satan, the loss of clothing as man’s loss of innocence, the wine given the man as Christ’s atoning blood, the inn as the Church, the innkeeper as Paul (or the Pope), and the two coins given to the innkeeper as the Law and the Prophets or the two testaments. While some of Jesus’ parables (like the Sower and the Soils, the Wheat and the Weeds, and the Evil Tenants) clearly are allegories, other are not.

Sometimes a parable is just a parable and The Good Samaritan meets the traditional definition of a parable: “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Rather than preaching about Himself, Jesus was giving a straightforward answer to the question of who is our neighbor and He did it in an easily remembered story that makes its point in a striking way. While the parallels between the Good Samaritan’s compassionate acts and Jesus’ sacrificial love for us are remarkable, we should be cautious of complicating the parable or adding extra meaning where there is none. After all, unlike many of his parables, Jesus didn’t seem to think this one required additional explanation. He simply said, “Go and do likewise!”

If, however, we went looking for a Jesus figure in this parable, perhaps we should consider the Samaritan as an ordinary person and the injured man as Jesus. He was beaten, stripped, abandoned, and left to die, as was our Lord and, like Jesus, after being ignored by the pious Jews, He was accepted by the outcast Gentiles. In this light, perhaps, in a roundabout way, Jesus did answer the lawyer’s question about attaining eternal life. Eternal life isn’t defined by good works—although we can try, none of us can love as lavishly and perfectly as did the Samaritan. But, just as the Samaritan responded to the injured Jew, we can respond to Jesus. And, when we do, we will be given divine empowerment to love God and others.

Reverend Amy Reumann tells of a sermon her grandfather preached to his small congregation; at a mere ten words, it might be the shortest sermon known! After reading Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as his sermon’s text, her grandfather said, “We all know what this means. Just go do it.” With those ten words, the sermon was over and the pastor sat down. Perhaps we try to complicate this simple parable because we know exactly what it means and we don’t want to do it! Preferring not to get involved, interrupted, or inconvenienced, we don’t want the obligation of addressing the pain, poverty, hunger, hurt, injustice, oppression, loss, affliction, and abuse found in this broken world. Although we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone, let us always remember the Apostle James’ words that faith without works is dead!

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [James 2:14-17 (RSV)]

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IPUWER’S VERSION

And all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. … And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile. [Exodus 7:20b-21,24 (ESV)]

The Lord sent thunder and hail, and fire ran down to the earth. …There was hail and fire flashing continually… And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field. [Exodus 9:23a,24a,25b (ESV)]

great egretNo story is repeated more in the Old Testament than that of the Exodus. Although it is the defining moment in Israel’s history and faith, there are many who choose to disbelieve it ever happened. Yet, if it didn’t, Jews and Christians alike are basing their faith on an elaborately constructed lie. In the early 1800s, a papyrus was found in Egypt that tells the story of the Exodus from an Egyptian’s point of view. Although the papyrus itself dates from around 1550-1069 BC, it is believed to be a copy of an earlier document written between 2040 and 1782 BC. Housed in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Netherlands, and first translated in 1909, it’s commonly known as the Admonitions of Ipuwer or the Ipuwer Papyrus.

Appearing to be an eyewitness account, the papyrus describes mayhem, drought, starvation, the escape of slaves (along with Egyptian wealth), and death throughout Egypt. Compare today’s verse from Exodus 7 with these from the Ipuwer Papyrus: “Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere. … The river is blood. Men shrink from tasting… and thirst after water… That is our water!… All is ruin.” [2:5-6,10,13] Compare the words from Exodus 9 to Ipuwer’s: “Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire. Lower Egypt weeps… Forsooth, grain has perished on every side… The entire palace is without its revenues. [2:10,6:3,10:6] Even the mention of “lower Egypt” weeping is notable since Scripture says that only in the land of Goshen (in the upper or northern part of the country) was there no hail.

Ipuwer reports the deadly plague that struck cattle with these words, “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan… [5:5] The plague of darkness is reported with, “The land is without light.” [9:11] In reporting the final plague, Exodus 12:30 says, “And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead.” Ipuwer reports that, “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.… It is groaning throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.” [2:13,3:14] The Bible tells us the Israelites carried away the Egyptians’ wealth and Ipuwer tells of the “gold and lapis lazuli, silver and malachite, carnelian and bronze” that were “fastened on the neck of female slaves.” [3:2]

The plagues are but a part of the papyrus and a large portion of it concerns what happened in Egypt after the plagues. While Scripture doesn’t address the after effects of Egypt’s loss of livestock, grain, wealth, first-born sons, or Pharaoh’s troops, chariots, and charioteers, Ipuwer does. He writes of the resulting chaos and ruin in the land—bankruptcy, crime, famine, rebellion, and invasion. If, like me, you ever wondered why Egypt never bothered the Israelites as they wandered the Sinai Peninsula for the next 40 years, Ipuwer’s papyrus offers a logical explanation. They were a broken nation!

Ipuwer seems to have been a real historical figure and his name (along with the title “Overseer of Singers”) was found on an ancient stone listing a group of royal scribes for the 19th dynasty. Nevertheless, the papyrus is not without controversy and scholars differ on whether it is an historical account of the events surrounding the Exodus or fiction (something called “national distress” literature.) Let us remember that once a skeptic accepts the historicity of the Exodus—the supernatural plagues and parting of both the Red Sea and the Jordan—then he is faced with the existence of a supreme being who rules over the world and directs its affairs. For those who do believe, while we don’t need extra Biblical evidence, it makes for interesting reading and even more interesting discussions with non-believers. Let us also remember that even if there were no extra-biblical evidence, lack of evidence does not mean something didn’t happen. The only way to disprove something is with evidence that it didn’t occur and that we most definitely do not have!

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. [Exodus 14:28-29 (ESV)]

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