SERMON ILLUSTRATIONS

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. …  These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. [1 Corinthians 10:1a,6-7a (NLT)]

One of my pastors says that everyone has two kinds of experiences. They’re either good or learning and, if we actually learn from the learning experiences, they can move into the good category! Being a pastor, he admits to categorizing his experiences a slightly different way; they’re either good ones or sermon illustrations (and he readily admits to having many sermon illustrations from which to choose!)

When we learn from the learning experiences of others, we can avoid having to learn those painful things first-hand. When advising the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offered some “sermon illustrations” as words of warning. Making reference to several of Israel’s failings, he reminded the Corinthians that, as blessed as the Israelites were, because they displeased God, most of their bodies were scattered through the wilderness.

Although the church at Corinth had some Jews, the majority of its members were Gentile converts. I wonder how familiar they were with the stories in Exodus and Numbers to which Paul refers. Did they know that, after the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, 3,000 of them died at the hands of the Levites? Were they familiar with the story of the 24,000 men who were executed for worshipping Baal and defiling themselves with Moabite prostitutes? Did they know that poisonous snakes bit the Israelites after they blasphemed God and rejected Moses? Were they aware that the Israelites’ complaint and rebellion against God, Moses and Aaron led to 14,700 dying in a plague? Did they even know that, of all the adults who came out of Egypt, only two (Joshua and Caleb) ever entered the Promised Land?

Actually, Paul’s congregation in Corinth probably knew those stories better than many Christians today. They had access the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and, while new to the church, I imagine they faithfully studied it and knew the history of Jesus’s people. While many in today’s church occasionally refer to their Bibles, it seems that few of us actually read them. Some of us may read Scripture haphazardly but, by just reading a passage here or there, we never see how it all fits together into a unified whole. If we attend a liturgical church, we may hear snippets of the Old and New Testaments each week, but that’s just bits and pieces. Many Christians who didn’t grow up in the church don’t even know Sunday school stories like Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jacob and Esau, or Moses and the burning bush. How, I wonder, can we learn from Israel’s mistakes when we don’t even know what they were?

Paul hoped the outcome for the Corinthians would be different from that of the Israelites but knew that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t learn from their ancestors’ errors. The Bible is one beautiful sermon illustration and there is much we can learn from others’ faults and failings. As for me, I would rather have my experiences be good ones rather than lessons or sermon illustrations. One way to do that is to learn from other people’s painful learning experiences so to avoid their pitfalls. To learn from them, however, we have to know what they were.

The only ignorance worse than not knowing the book that made us who we are as a civilization is believing we can go on being civilized without that book. The marks of the Bible upon the West and its people are deep. … But they are not indelible. We were barbarians before the God of the Bible found us. And we can become barbarians again. [G. Shane Morris]

Who allowed Israel to be robbed and hurt? It was the Lord, against whom we sinned, for the people would not walk in his path, nor would they obey his law. Therefore, he poured out his fury on them and destroyed them in battle. They were enveloped in flames, but they still refused to understand. They were consumed by fire, but they did not learn their lesson. [Isaiah 42:24-25 (NLT)]

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THE LAMB OF GOD – ASH WEDNESDAY

New mexicoThe next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! [John 1:29 (NLT)]

Today is the first day of Lent, a season in which we remember the time Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. Because Lent occurs in the weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter, we tend to associate this period of Jesus’s life with the end of his ministry. It actually occurred early in His ministry, shortly after his baptism by John and his empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

During Jesus’s time in the wilderness, Satan visited and tempted Him. Jesus first was tempted to serve Himself—to alleviate his hunger by turning stones into bread. In the second temptation, Satan urged Jesus to jump off the Temple and reveal Himself in a spectacular display. This action would also test God’s love by coercing Him into saving Jesus. In the third test, Satan tempted Jesus to skip the cross altogether; all the kingdoms of the world would be His if only He’d worship the evil one.

Just because Jesus was divine doesn’t mean He couldn’t have fallen; He also was human and, like us all, susceptible to Satan’s wiles. He could have sinned as easily as Adam and Eve, but He didn’t! Resisting temptation was as essential to His mission as was suffering on the cross. Just as sin came into the world through one man, God would redeem the world through one man, but Jesus had to remain sinless for that to happen. If He hadn’t, there would have been no point to the cross; only a perfect sinless sacrifice could atone for mankind’s sins.

Because Jesus countered all of Satan’s temptations with Scripture, we tend to think of the temptation of Christ as sort of a “how to” manual on overpowering temptation. While it is that, it is so much more. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to teach us a lesson—He went into the wilderness to save us. He wasn’t just battling for His soul—He was fighting Satan for ours! He was defeating Satan by deliberating choosing to suffer for us as a man when He was God! He endured hunger when he could have spoken food into existence. He humbly chose to remain an obscure rabbi from Nazareth rather than use His power to win a following. Refusing to compromise with Satan, He chose obedience to God: to live, suffer and die as a man. Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, chose to endure the cross for sinful selfish mankind: the very people who would put Him there!

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)]

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:15-16 (NLT)]

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MINUTES PER DAY

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)]

sunset - vanderbilt beach - naplesFitbit recently notified me that I’ve logged 4,132 miles and awarded me a badge for having walked the length of the Nile River. And to think—I managed to do it all without ever leaving the country. With the aim of averaging 10,000 steps a day, I was curious to see how close to that goal I’ve gotten since getting the Fitbit. Some complicated math told me that, by now, I should have logged enough steps to be three-quarters of the way from the North to the South Pole. Granted, I haven’t always worn my pedometer and both foot and knee injuries temporarily benched me. Nevertheless, surprised to see how short I was of my goal, I realized how easy it is to think we’ve done far more than we actually have.

We don’t have prayometers to log our prayer time nor does God award badges for time spent talking with Him. If He did, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I should be. By my next birthday, I will have lived 26,280 days (not counting leap days) which is 37,843,200 minutes. If I spent even five minutes a day in prayer, that would be 131,400 minutes or 91 days of my life. While I would have received the Kim Kardashian badge for praying longer than her 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries, I wouldn’t have prayed as long as the 98 days the Macarena was the number one hit song.  Even if I’d faithfully prayed ten minutes every day, I’d be short of the badge honoring James Garfield (who died 6 months and 15 days into his term). It would take twenty minutes of prayer every day to qualify me for the 365-day one year badge. One year out of 72 spent in prayer didn’t sound deficient until I realized that is a little less than 1.4% of my life. Although some of that time was spent in infancy when I was too young to pray, most of it wasn’t. Other than sleeping, what was I doing with the other 98.6% of my time? Then reality set in; days I spent twenty minutes in prayer were few and far between; on the average, five minutes is more like it.

Unfortunately, just as I over-estimated my steps, I’ve probably over-estimated even five minutes of daily prayer. We’re told to pray without ceasing but how? We don’t live in monasteries or convents, have servants to do our chores, or families we can ignore. Needing to eat, sleep, work, and serve family, church and community, how is it possible to pray continually? I suppose the answer is that our entire life should be a prayer—having our hearts open to the Lord’s leading, dedicating ourselves to being a blessing to others, and glorifying God in all we say and do. Nevertheless, in spite of saying grace or shooting out quick “please and thank you” prayers during the day, time needs to be set aside daily for daily chats with our Father in heaven.

God allots us twenty-four hours in a day; taking eight off for sleep, that leaves us sixteen hours (960 minutes) for eating, working, reading, Facebook, bathroom, television, talking, exercise, prayer and so on. If we gave God our undivided attention in prayer for only ten minutes each day, that would be a mere 1% of our waking time. I would venture a guess that we probably spend more than that on social media and email. As we move into this Lenten season of reflection, it might be a good time for us to consider our prayer life. Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for forty days; it would seem that we should be able to withdraw from the world and commune with God for ten minutes a day.

It’s not enough to splash a little prayer on in the morning or to run through a sprinkler of God’s mercy now and then. It’s not enough to double our spirits in an hour of worship on Sunday or to dash into a drizzle of teaching every month or so. Our souls need to soak in God’s presence. It’s no luxury, this time we spend in the healing waters of God’s grace. It’s neither excess nor indulgence to immerse ourselves in communion with our creator. It’s a spiritual necessity if we want to become the people God has created us to be. [Penelope J. Stokes]

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. [Romans 12:12 (NIV)]

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STARS

who would you be for a day?Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known. [Jeremiah 33:3 (ESV)]

The bulletin board outside the auditorium posed this question: “If you could be someone famous for a day, who would you be?” People had written their answers on paper stars and pinned them to the board. Including both living and dead, the answers ranged from entertainment, royalty and sports to technology, government, and the arts. They included Thomas Edison, Beyoncé, Georgia O’Keefe, Chrissie Evert, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Maya Angelou, and Coco Chanel. Oprah received several stars as did Alexander Hamilton, Audrey Hepburn, and Michele Obama. Warren Buffet was the only entrepreneur listed but someone else was satisfied to be “any rich person;” one man wished to be Penélope Cruz’s husband.

I looked at the stars and pondered my answer. Although God had one star, He certainly wouldn’t be my choice. I have enough trouble running my life; running the universe, even for just a day, would be way too much responsibility for me. In the end, I had to agree with the one star that said “Me;” being me is all I can manage. This exercise, however, reminded me of a similar question asked in our small group: “If you could have a conversation with someone famous, who would it be?”

Even though I wouldn’t have much in common with sport stars like Joe DiMaggio or Bobby Orr and probably wouldn’t understand Giacomo Puccini or Leonardo DaVinci, I would enjoy being in the presence of nearly everyone whose star appeared on the board (with the exceptions of Christopher Hitchens, Hugh Hefner and whoever is Penelope Cruz’s husband). If I actually did have an opportunity to meet with one of those people, you can be sure I wouldn’t waste my time talking about me, my background, ambitions, needs and desires. A conversation with Bishop Desmond Tutu, Florence Nightingale, or even Lucille Ball would have no point if I never let them get a word in edgewise. I’d want to hear what they had to say: to ask about them, to know what was important to them, what made them tick, and what advice they’d pass on to me.

Alas, with one notable exception, most of us will never have the opportunity to converse with any of the people whose names were on that bulletin board. The exception, of course, is God, the greatest one of them all. Unlike all of those stars we’ll never meet, we can talk with God in prayer any time we want. Prayer gives us the opportunity not just to know about God but to actually know Him—to have a relationship with Him—and not just for a day, but forever!

I wonder why I’m so willing to jabber on when talking with God—the one who knows all things—when I’d quietly listen intently to a celebrity. The creator of the universe doesn’t require my guidance on world management any more than Ina Garten needs my cooking advice or Billie Jean King needs my tennis pointers. God doesn’t need me to tell Him what it is I need or want and He certainly doesn’t need me to list my concerns or register my complaints; He already knows all there is to know about me! In fact, He knows what I need before I know I even need it!

It is when we quiet our voices that we can hear the voice of God. Thomas Merton describes this listening or contemplative prayer as “not so much a way to find God as a way of resting in him whom we have found, who loves us, who is near to us, who comes to us to draw us to himself.” Let us bask in His presence; let us pray.

Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts. [Mother Teresa]

Be still, and know that I am God. [Psalm 46:10a (ESV)]

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him [Matthew 6:7-8 (ESV)]

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HIS PEDAGOGY

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 (NLT)]

pink hibiscus

“May the Holy Spirit give us grace to not begrudge the pedagogy of God,” wrote John Piper. Pedagogy being a somewhat archaic word, I was unsure what Piper meant. Associating pedagogy with an old, boring, stodgy, and authoritarian teacher, I thought it wise to consult the dictionary. “Pedagogy” comes from two Greek words: pais, meaning child, and agogos, meaning leader. A paidagogos was a slave who led the boys to and from school, taught them manners, and tutored them after school. “Pedagogy” eventually came to mean the method and practice of teaching and “pedagogue” to mean teacher. While God is neither boring nor stodgy, He is older than time and an authoritarian (but loving) teacher with some unique, innovative and often challenging teaching methods or pedagogy.

I don’t know about boys in ancient Greece, but I imagine they were like boys today: often less than enthusiastic about learning their lessons, spending time in a classroom, and being taught restraint, civility, and good behavior. Like schoolboys, we are often less than enthusiastic about learning the lessons God is teaching us. Sometimes life seems bizarre or unreasonable and other times it’s downright difficult or heartbreaking; almost all of the time it’s hard to understand. It’s easy to begrudge the way God teaches us.

I think of a scene from the movie Peggy Sue Got Married in which the middle-aged Peggy Sue goes back in time to high school. When asked to solve a problem in algebra class, she responds, “I happen to know that, in the future, I will not have the slightest use for algebra, and I speak from experience.” I agree with Peggy Sue—once out of school, I had no need to know about coefficients, variables, constants or exponents. But, I didn’t know that when I took freshman algebra more than half a century ago.

We are finite beings and can only see what is right before us. God, however, is infinite and can see far into our future both here and in the hereafter. When He teaches us lessons about patience, humility, loss, conflict resolution, pain, worry, pride, fear, trust, obedience, persistence, and faith, we rarely know for what purpose we’re in His schoolroom or when we’re going to need the skill we’re being taught. God’s pedagogy only makes sense when we look back in time. It is then that we realize the benefit we’ve gained from His extraordinary and often bizarre teaching methods. Indeed, as John Piper said, “May the Holy Spirit give us grace to not begrudge the pedagogy of God.”

I never had a trial I wanted to have, but I never had trial I wasn’t glad I had. [Jack Hyles]

My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees. Your instructions are more valuable to me than millions in gold and silver. You made me; you created me. Now give me the sense to follow your commands. [Psalm 119:71-73 (NLT)]

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UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV)]

violetsIt was the first night of a new small group study and, as we gathered our books to leave, one woman said she’d have to read more about the author since he sounded like a Calvinist. Believing that everyone has the God-given ability to choose God’s grace, she didn’t want to participate in the class if the book’s author believed that, in the past, God chose some among mankind for His own and that that Christ died only for those elect.

There is much in church doctrine that is disputed between denominations and the differences are often subtle, complicated, and confusing. Regarding Calvinism, there is five-point Calvinism, Amyraldism which holds to only four of Calvin’s points, Arminianism (the rejection of predestination and an affirmation of free will), and a host of other isms in between. There are differing views of Communion, as well: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, sacramental union, receptionism, and memorialism. Does the bread actually transform into the actual flesh and blood of Christ, is it spiritually the flesh and blood of Jesus, the spiritual presence of Christ, or a remembrance of Christ’s suffering? What about baptism? Is it a requirement for salvation or merely symbolic of the salvation process? All of these questions (and many more) arise out of several hard to reconcile passages in the Bible. Unable to clearly define many of these issues, I know I will never fully understand them.

Some things in Christianity are essential and non-negotiable: the deity of Christ, His substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, the resurrection, salvation by grace though faith, the Holy Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and life everlasting. Agreement on many other issues, however, is not necessary and those issues will remain unresolved this side of heaven. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis opined that many of our great theological and metaphysical questions are probably as nonsensical and unanswerable as asking how many hours are in a mile or whether the color yellow is square or round. He wrote that when he laid his unanswered questions at God’s door, he got no answer. Lewis added that the silence was not a locked door/no one’s home kind of silence but more like that of a compassionate God, shaking his head and thinking, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

When the woman from class said, “I can’t believe in a God who would sacrifice His son for only a select group rather than all of mankind,” I said she didn’t have to. She and I may be wrong in our beliefs, but our salvation doesn’t depend on our knowing the right answer. Actually, our salvation doesn’t depend on having the right answer to most of the doctrinal controversies and isms that separate Christ’s Church. More important than understanding various theological or doctrinal issues is having the mind of Christ. Sooner or later, all the rest will make perfect sense.

Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never really was any problem. [C.S. Lewis, from “A Grief Observed”]

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. [1 Corinthians 13:11-13 (ESV)]

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