Sunday, March 28, 2010

We See Jesus—Praised!

(A sermon based on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010)

[Note: my Holy Week series is "We See Jesus!" The theme verse for the series is Hebrews 2:9: “We do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”]

On that first Palm Sunday, people laid their garments and laid palm branches in front of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem; they did so as an act of praise. On this Palm Sunday—and at all times—we still praise Jesus. What can we learn about such praise from the story of Palm Sunday?

When we praise the Lord, let us praise him because of what he has done.

Praise is our response to what the Lord has done. Luke tells us that “as (Jesus) was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully…” (v. 37ab).

On the one hand, the kind of welcome that Jesus was receiving from his disciples was not unusual. Many pilgrims came to Jerusalem for Passover and they would have sung the pilgrim psalms as they did here. Moreover, disciples would naturally hail the arrival of their rabbi; Jesus was likely not the only one praised on that day.

On the other hand, it is significant that Jesus’ disciples “praised God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (v. 37c). They had seen him perform miracles, they had seen him heal people, they had seen him raise people from the dead, and they had seen him change many lives. They had seen an awful lot for which to praise him.

So too should we praise him for what he has done. We live on the other side of Easter and so we know the whole story. We know that Jesus is to be praised for showing us who God is, for showing us what it is to be fully obedient to the Father, for providing a way for us of direct access to God, for paying the penalty for our sins, and for making a way for us to have eternal life.
Yet when you get right down to it, praise becomes a very personal thing. We praise God for all that Jesus has done for us. These were disciples praising Jesus; they had seen, they had heard, they had felt what he had done. We praise him because of what we have seen, heard, and felt.

Being disciples, though, let us praise the Lord from the perspective of real disciples.

By “real disciples” I mean disciples who respond to God’s revelation in Jesus with simple faith and trusting obedience rather than being disciples who settle for a too limited perspective. While we can’t read the minds of the disciples who were praising Jesus as he approached Jerusalem, the Gospels make it clear that their understanding of Jesus’ kingship was incomplete until after the resurrection.

So when they made the one little change in a line from the psalm they sang, changing “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” they were at the same time saying more than they should have and less than they should have. They were saying more than they should have in that they were probably praising him as the kind of king they wanted; namely, one who would fully establish the kingdom of God right away and rule in power from then on. They were saying less than they should have in that Jesus’ kingship was of a different character than they expected.

We praise the Lord well when we praise him for who he is really is and not who we want him to be. Yes, Jesus was approaching Jerusalem as the king, just like the disciples proclaimed. But he was not coming as a king who would fight his way to victory. He was not coming as a king who would immediately establish his kingdom by force and rule in ways that could be missed by no one. No, he was going to establish a kingdom that would be planted like a small seed and that would grow bit by bit, day by day, life by life, until it reaches it fruition.

Perhaps more important than anything else is the fact that he came as a king of peace. “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” the disciples proclaimed. It’s interesting that when Jesus was born the angels praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among people” (Luke 2:14). The angels spoke of glory to God in heaven and so did the disciples. But the disciples, now saying more than they knew but getting it right, spoke of glory to God in heaven and of peace on earth. What we are to understand, I believe, is that ultimate peace between God and people has been assured in heaven by what Jesus has done. But the working out of that peace on earth would take a long time. It is still taking a long time.

Jesus came as the Prince of Peace, not as the King of War. He came riding on an animal that symbolized both sacredness and peace. How interested are we in peace? Have we entered the peace with God that comes with salvation? Are we becoming active peacemakers in our personal relationships? Are we praying for our enemies and for those who despitefully use us? Are we asking for the turning of our hearts and the hearts of others so that we can enter into real relationships of peace?

We praise him well when we praise him with our lives. The biblical witness is consistent: to be valid, words of praise must be matched by lives of praise. A life of praise is a life lived in service to God.

This truth is underscored by Luke’s placing of the parable of the pounds right before the triumphal entry. In the parable Jesus told of a nobleman who went to a distant land to receive royal power. When he left he gave some of his slaves some money with which to trade. He told them, “Do business with these until I come back” (19:13b). When he came back one had doubled his money, another had made half again as much, and one had done nothing but hide it away. Those who did well were rewarded by being given more responsibility while the one who had done nothing—who had not even tried (it would have been better even to take the safe way out and just put it in the bank, the king said)—had what he had been given taken away.

Now, this parable is much too nuanced and detailed to go into here. I just want to point out that it speaks to the way disciples are called to live our lives in the interim period between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming. He’s given us gifts with which to work to help bring about peace between people and God and between people and people. That’s our calling. That’s our joy.


The story of Palm Sunday calls us to praise God for what Jesus has done in our lives and in the lives of so many others. It calls us to praise God as real disciples, praising him for who Jesus really is and praising him with our lives.

How are we praising God?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Way Forward: Giving

(A sermon based on Genesis 1:26-31 & Matthew 23:23-24 for Sunday, March 14, 2010; it is the sixth in a series.)

We have been talking about the way forward for First Baptist Church. We have said that the way forward will be built on the three main things of worshiping God, following Jesus, and being formed by Scripture. We have also said that our pursuit of those three main things will be undergirded with prayer and that it will inevitably result in the doing of ministry out in the world.

Today I want us to see that our giving is a vital part of that pursuit. I hope that we will go away seeing that our giving results from all that God has already given.

That means that I am not going to get at this subject in one way that I could and in the way that you might have expected. I am not going to talk much about responsibility. There’s something to be said for the discipline of giving even if we do it for no other reason than the “ought to” of it. It’s a step in the right direction but it’s not a worthy long-term motivation for those living the Christian life.

“The highest form of giving,” Brennan Manning said, is “thanksgiving” [Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust (San Francisco: Harper, 2000), p. 35]. The Christian approach to life is to live it in a constant state of gratitude, always giving thanks to God for the amazing blessings of life. There is so much for which we are to be thankful. The creation narratives in Genesis are celebrative passages; they lead us to celebrate God’s creation of our world and of us.

It is a blessing that God made us. Without God we are not; because of God we are. Understanding more about this fact will deepen our gratitude and expand our thanksgiving.

We are created in God’s image. That means, among other things, that we are created to be God’s representatives on the earth. As God’s representatives we are to be good stewards of what God has created, including our own lives. If we are going to be God’s representatives on the earth then we want to reflect who God is in the ways we do things. So we want to be as pure of heart, as pure of motive, as we can be. We want God’s will for the world and so we want what is best for the world. We want to respond in gratitude for this good world over which God has made us stewards. We want to do good for God by doing good for God’s world.

To be created in God’s image also means that we are created for community. The God who made us is characterized by being three-in-one; God is the Holy Trinity. God is defined by relationship so God’s people are characterized by being in relationship with one another. God who is love has made us to love one another. We want to do good for God by doing good for and with each other.

Why, then, does it all so often go so badly? We are made to celebrate God’s creation of us by doing good for and in his world and by doing good in our relationships. All too often, though, we find ourselves hurting ourselves, hurting the world, hurting our families, hurting the Lord’s work. Why? Well, the short answer is found in the little word “sin.”

God did something about our predicament, though: he gave his only Son so that in the death and resurrection of Christ we could find ourselves reconciled to God. In Jesus Christ we can have the image of God restored in us and we can move toward being and doing as God in his grace and for our good intends for us to be and to do. Even as Christians, though, we find ourselves being pulled aside by our selfishness and pride; even as Christians we find ourselves needing to turn to God with renewed faith and commitment.

It is a further blessing, you see, that God made us capable of responding. We are capable of responding to God’s good creation of this world and of us. What should that response be?

It should be a life of faithful and joyful response to who God is and to what God has done, a life of gratitude and celebration that issues in a heart-felt and life-changing commitment. We respond to all that God has done with our very lives; we respond to the giving of God’s Son’s life with the giving of our lives—but we respond not because we have to or even because we need to but rather because out of love and grace we just want to! We just can’t help ourselves! And so we look for ways to love, to serve, to share, and to give.

Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” because they tithed even the smallest amounts of the smallest herbs in their gardens but failed to practice justice and mercy and faith in their lives. They evermore tithed—they were the type that, had they found a dime on the sidewalk, would have put a penny in the offering plate. But they didn’t do the bigger things: they didn’t trust in God with all their hearts and they didn’t love their neighbor as themselves—they didn’t live in faith and they didn’t practice justice and mercy. We should give comprehensively, in every way we can out of the totality of our lives.

I stand before you this morning as a strange, strange Baptist preacher. I’m almost finished with this sermon on giving and I haven’t even told you that you ought to tithe. I’ll tell you now that if you can’t give like you should in any other way then you certainly need to practice the discipline of tithing. I’ll tell you too that the tithe is but a starting point.

But I want to call us to do much, much more than tithe. I want to call us to live Christian lives. A Christian life is a life that has been touched by the mercy and grace of God. It is a life that has caught that life-changing glimpse of the way that things really are—that God has made a good world and has given us a good place in it. It is a life that is so full of faith and grace and love that even in the midst of the worst of it all it is still a life lived in celebration. It is a life that is so full of God that that it just has to give and share and love in every area of life. It is a life that will do all of those things out of love for God and love for each other.

Besides, the blessings of God are meant to be shared and if we don’t share them our lives will become stagnant and stale and even, in the long run, putrid.

Ed Bacon was the Dean of Students at Mercer during my student years; he has since 1995 served as Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. When he talks about generosity with church members he compares two bodies of water in Israel.

First, he describes the vibrancy surrounding the Sea of Galilee, which he witnessed from the deck of a restaurant at the seashore. “There were people in rowboats and speedboats, folks way out in fishing boats, people on Jet skis, people picnicking along the banks. For centuries people have made their business a fishing business because the place is so full of fish,” he said.

“Next, I talk about going to the Dead Sea on the same tour, and there’s no life there. The only thing that’s going on is in one or two spots you go and get this mud on your face and it’s supposed to be good for your skin. You can go out and float because of all the salt. But there is no boating, no picnicking, no foliage, no greenery. It’s desolate.

“The difference between those two bodies of water is that the Sea of Galilee not only receives the Jordan River, but it releases the Jordan River; it gives. The Dead Sea only has water coming in. Nothing is flowing out, except through evaporation. That is the essence of life, and that is the essence of what makes you alive, when you not only receive the graces of God but you also give the graces of God away very liberally, very generously”
[In Douglas LeBlanc, Tithing: Test Me in This (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), pp. 120-121].

Are we letting the blessings and graces of God flow through us?

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Way Forward: Ministry

(A sermon based on Luke 10:25-42 for Sunday, March 7, 2010. This is the fifth in a series called "The Way Forward.")

We have been talking about the way forward for the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald; so far we have said that the way forward involves a focus on worshiping God, following Jesus, and being formed by Scripture with every aspect of that three-pronged focus being undergirded by prayer. Today I want to say that worshiping God, following Jesus, being formed by Scripture, and praying will necessarily and inevitably lead us to the doing of ministry.

Put simply, being leads to doing; so if we are growing in being Christians we will also be growing in doing Christian ministry.

Everything that we have discussed thus far functions to draw us closer to God but each of the actions we have discussed also turns us back toward the world, out toward other people, in service. We worship, we praise God for who God is, and in so doing we are drawn nearer to him but worship, which is our service to God, is also our service to others, so our worship in church drives us outside the church to serve. Through Scripture we become immersed in God’s story and our lives are formed and shaped in the image of Christ which in turn leads us to be the Body of Christ in the world. As we follow Jesus we will become more and more sacrificial and service-oriented because those were the ways that Jesus lived. We pray because we want to communicate with God but when we pray God will call us to put feet to our prayers and lead us to serve.

As we worship, learn, and pray our hearts change and our spirits expand, but then our feet and hands and mouths get to moving and to working, especially in the service of others.

The gist of this sermon is that we need to become more service oriented, more ministry oriented. But here we need to acknowledge a trap into which we can fall if we aren’t careful: we can become so busy doing things and helping people that we neglect our personal relationship with Christ. If that happens our motives may come to be less that Christian; we may become motivated by pride or ego or legalism—we may even fall into a works righteousness that drains us of all joy.

It is not that Martha was doing wrong in busily attending to Jesus. It is that in her busyness she was not able to turn loose and just sit at Jesus’ feet. If we’re not careful our busyness becomes the point of our lives rather than our relationship with Christ.

Make no mistake about it, though: a true and growing relationship with Christ leads us to serve. We can’t just sit at Jesus’ feet and soak up his love and compassion for ourselves; we have to get up and spread it around. “Do” is a great big powerful word. I can tell myself that I am a neighbor but I am not really a neighbor until I do something. The scribe who questioned Jesus asked the right question; it is the question to which we all want the answer: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer was no mystery; it had been in the Scriptural tradition for centuries and when Jesus asked the scribe how the law would respond to his question he knew the answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him to go do that.

See, there’s the big word “do.” You know what to do, now go do it, Jesus said. The scribe said, “Yes, but who is my neighbor?” In asking that question the scribe showed what a terribly long way he had to go. In response Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in which he made clear that the issue is not who our neighbor is; the issue rather is that we be a neighbor.

How can we go about being neighbor to the people around us?

First, we should let the Good Samaritan be our example. He was a neighbor to the injured man in very practical but very sacrificial ways. Someone has said, “Compassion is Christianity in overalls” [Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville: Broadman, 1982), p. 231]. We must be doers of the word and not hearers only. We must keep our eyes open to the hurting people around us and give of ourselves to help. We must be neighbors to those here in our city and area and around the world. We must find ways to reach out in big and small ways to our own community and in big and small ways to a big world that is getting smaller all the time.

Second, each one of us should “let it begin in me.” That is, we can move toward being more service and ministry-oriented in our church when we begin to do so in our individual lives. The parable is about one Samaritan helping one injured man whom he found alongside one road. Are we sensitive to those whom we meet on our journey? Do we help them when we find them?

Third, we should find creative ways as a church to minister to the needs of people. I take very seriously the truths that each one of us who is a Christian is a child of God with access to his Holy Spirit and with the ability to study our Bibles and to listen for God’s voice. Each one of you has your own good ideas. As you think of ways in which we can creatively and effectively reach out to the hurting people of our community and our world, share them! (And then be ready to lead us in them!)

We already minister in many ways to many people. Back in November we published in the newsletter a list of the ministries in which we are involved; that list included the following.

Bicycles for Christmas
Patticake House
Lottie Moon Christmas Offering
Pink Ladies
Angel Tree for Homebound
Christian Kitchen Volunteers
Warm-up suits for Life Care
Campbell Soup Labels
CBF Global Missions Offering
Good News Club
Adult 3 Dept. Auction for Christmas
Home Mission Offering
Hospice Volunteers
Annie Armstrong Offering
Habitat for Humanity
Baxley Children’s Home
Bereavement Meals
Booth at Wild Chicken Festival
Hem of His Garment
DVD/CD Ministry
Vacation Bible School
SS and Worship on the Radio
GA Christmas in August
Life Care Sunday School Class
State Mission Study/Offering
Harris House Ministry
Missions Fair
Shiloh Ministry
Samaritan’s Purse
Mission Friends/RA/GA
World Hunger
Ladies Night Out
Heifer Project
Imagine Ministries
Samaritan’s Feet
Ruth’s Cottage
Weekday Preschool
Benevolence Committee

To that list we can now add, among other things, our PACK (Planned Acts of Christian Kindness) Ministry through which we go out on Saturdays to share the love of Christ in “low-impact” ways with people in our community and our upcoming Summer Mission Project in Perry County, Alabama. The Mission Ventures Team is leading us in organizing and prioritizing and promoting our ministry efforts but we need to grab hold of the fact that they are to lead us and not to do the ministry for us—there is ministry for all of us to do!

I am committed, and I hope and pray that you will be committed with me, to turning our attention more and more outward, to working in partnership with the Holy Spirit and with each other to give of our time, our talents, our money—of all our resources—to reach out to the lost and the hurting and the impoverished in whatever ways we can. While we can always improve and expand the ministries that we provide here at the church—we will soon, I am confident, be adding ministry leadership to our Children’s Ministry, for example—the truth is that, when you stop and think about it, we do a good job of ministering to those who come, to those who are part of our church family. The truth also is that we use most of our resources to provide ministry to those who are part of “us.” I hope that we will, as new and additional resources come to us, be committed to using those resources to reach the people outside our walls who need the love of Christ.

For example, you probably read Sherri Butler’s recent story in our local newspaper that reported that Ben Hill County ranks 153rd out of Georgia’s 159 counties “for the social and economic factors that affect health, such as level of education, employment, children in poverty, single-parent households and homicide rate” [ Sherri Butler, “Poverty, low education, teen pregnancy help put Ben Hill near bottom in health rankings,” The Herald-Leader, February 24, 2010, p. 1-A]. While most of those factors are not applicable to those of us who are on the inside of First Baptist Church, they are prevalent in our community.

How can we help? How can we minister? Our calling is to answer those questions and then to live out the answers.