Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Advent Hymns

Some of the things that make planning Advent worship difficult, particularly in traditions that don't have a long history of observing Advent, are that (1) there are few well-known Advent songs and (2) it's hard to teach a congregation new ones when they only sing them every 12 months.

No doubt the time will come when more of our existing Advent hymns get into our memories like our Christmas songs have.

In the meantime, though, it occurred to me that one thing we could do to address the situation would be to have Advent texts set to familiar Christmas music. So I have undertaken a project to do just that.

My first effort is called Our Savior Comes which is sung to the tune ANTIOCH (the tune to Joy to the World).

If you would like to receive the words so you can try the hymn out, send me an email at and I'll reply with the text.

Advent blessings to you!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

When Jesus Comes: We Are Gathered Home

(A sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-9 & Mark 13:24-37 for the First Sunday of Advent 2011)

This first Sunday of Advent is for the Church the first day of the New Year; it being the first day of the New Year, it is appropriate that we spend a little time looking ahead. And so our Mark text encourages us to look forward to the time when Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected and ascended Messiah, will come again.

You might be thinking, “Now, hold on there—this is the time of year when we look forward to Christmas; we haven’t even gotten to the birth of Jesus, much less his death, resurrection, and ascension. How can we be talking about his second coming?” The answer is that the Season of Advent is about all of the comings of Jesus—his first coming to the manger of Bethlehem (to the commemoration of which we look forward but which has after all already happened), his second coming at the close of the age to which today’s text points, and his coming to us in our lives here and now. We celebrate his first coming, we anticipate his second coming, and we live in the fellowship with him that results from his present comings to us.

One thing that Jesus said will take place when he comes again is that “he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (v. 27). That is, all the people of God, no matter who they are and no matter where they are, will be gathered together to be together—with Jesus and with each other—forever. All the children of God, all the brothers and sisters of Jesus—all of our brothers and sisters—will be gathered together to be together.

Where will we be gathered? We’ll be gathered home, of course, because home is where the family belongs. What will we do there? We’ll do whatever our Lord wants us to do, of course, because we’ll finally get this discipleship and obedience business right.

We need to remember, though, that we are in a very real sense already gathered home. Jesus told a parable to make the point that we should always be ready for him to return; in that parable he used the image of a man who goes away from his home and leaves his servants in charge. “Therefore, keep awake,” Jesus said, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (vv. 35-37).

Jesus came here all those years ago to make his home with humanity; he then went away and told us to be ready for his coming. Jesus has come to us to make his home with us through the Holy Spirit right here and right now and we need to be on the watch for his coming.

How do we stay watchful and ready? By staying in close communion with him, by living the kind of life he did, by being obedient to the Father like he was, by giving ourselves up like he did, and by loving like he did.

We’d all like to see God intervene in a big and obvious way and one day God will do just that when Jesus comes back. But let’s not lose sight of small and subtle ways that God intervenes right now—and let’s not lose sight of the ways God does that through us.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that one day, when Jesus returns, we’ll be gathered home.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that on this day, because Jesus has already come and still comes to us, we are already gathered home.

This Thanksgiving was a homecoming of sorts for me. I was invited to deliver the pregame devotion for the Lamar County Trojans, the football team of my high school alma mater, on the day after Thanksgiving. My class, the Class of 1976, was the first class to graduate from the school after it moved to its present location in the fall of 1975. While I graduated with my class in 1976, I never attended school in that building because I left to after my junior year to go to college. So I kept thinking as I walked through the buildings, “This is my home; I don’t belong here.”

That’s kind of the way it is for us as Christians. This earth is our home; God has placed us here and God in Christ through the Holy Spirit makes God’s home with us right here and right now. Ultimately speaking, though, we don’t belong here. And one day Jesus will return to take us where do we finally and for all time belong.

But still, let’s not forget that in a very real way, we are already home…

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ten Thanksgiving Memories

1. The one 40+ years ago when my Aunt Dot Mulling passed out on the back porch of Mawmaw and Pawpaw's house.

2. The one where we stayed in Louisville and took advantage of the Take Five restaurant's "Dinner and a Movie" deal for Thanksgiving dinner.

3. The other one where we stayed in Louisville and a member of the little church I served as pastor had died and they had the funeral on Thanksgiving morning which meant we had to drive 70 miles each way and put off our Thanksgiving dinner with friends until supper time.

4. The ones when the big Barksdale family gathering in the New Life Baptist fellowship hall still included Granny and her sisters.

5. The one where for the first time I had deep fried turkey, prepared by my late good friend Gary Spann.

6. The one where we held the first Ruffin bonfire/hot dog roast/hayride on Thanksgiving night in Yatesville, which has for many years now been an annual tradition.

7. The one when the Community Thanksgiving Service was held in the sanctuary of FBC Adel where an African-American gentleman played the piano and sang wearing a white suit and sunglasses and Joshua, who was just a little fellow at the time, tugged on my sleeve and asked, "Is that the man who sings, "You got the right one, baby'?"

8. The one when we began our tradition of spending the 15 minute drive from Yatesville to Barnesville listening to the greatest Thanksgiving song ever recorded which is, of course, "Alice's Restaurant".

9. The one that was the first one that Debra and I celebrated as husband and wife and that included performing the wedding ceremony of Bruce Swatts & Yolanda Perez and then having a Thanksgiving dinner with my father & step-mother that featured the traditional broiled pork chops.

10. The ones when I have reminded myself every Thanksgiving Day to be thankful every other day of the year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ten Things for Which I AM Thankful This Year

1. The ruthless faithfulness and insistent grace of God.

2. The love, grace, peace, faith, and joy persistently embodied in my wife.

3. The wonderful people that our children are now and are in the process of becoming.

4. The educational institutions that made a difference in my life, especially Miss Sylvia's Kindergarten, Gordon Grammar School and Mercer University.

5. The families of faith that have made a difference in my life (they all happen to be Baptist), in particular Midway in Barnesville, GA, Pritchett Memorial in Jugtown, GA, First in Macon, GA, Beech Grove in Owenton, KY, First in Adel, GA, Fosterville (TN), The Hill in Augusta, GA, and First in Fitzgerald, GA. Special mention also goes to two churches of which I was never a member but which hold a special place in my heart: Tatnall Square in Macon whose former sanctuary became Newton Hall at Mercer University and where we attended BSU meetings and chapel services and Leary Baptist in Leary, GA which is the home church of Debra Kay Johnson and in whose sanctuary on a glorious June day in 1978 she became my wife.

6. My growing awareness of the necessity of practicing the classic Christian disciplines.

7. Printed words in real books--the kind with pages and covers.

8. Football Friday nights in South Georgia.

9. Friends I have known, now know, and will know.

10. Pie.

Ten Things for Which I am NOT Thankful This Year

1. That the nature of the political discourse in our nation is so negative and counter-productive.

2. That the Super Committee exists at all and that, since it does exist, that it proved incapable of accomplishing anything.

3. That "celebrity" has become an occupation.

4. That so many public servants serve narrow interest groups rather than the public.

5. That so many Christian leaders are so obsessed with tradition that they can't deal with modernity or are so obsessed with modernity that they can't honor tradition.

6. That so many Christians follow the dictates of the commercial Christmas calendar with more enthusiasm than they follow the proddings of the Church's Advent and Christmas calendar.

7. That our national politicians are proving in negative ways why their respective parties are represented by a donkey and an elephant.

8. That our commercialized culture doesn't want us to enjoy one holiday at a time and that we let it push us around.

9. That cancer has stricken so many of the children and youth in our community.

10. Brussels Sprouts.

Friday, November 11, 2011

When Styles Clash--or Come Together

Former world heavyweight boxing champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier died of liver cancer on November 7, 2011. He had a career professional record of 32-4-1.

Although I was only twelve years old at the time, I have very clear memories of the build-up to and the aftermath of the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and him that was held in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.

I recall going to bed on March 8 hoping that Frazier would defeat Ali and upon waking up the next morning going straight to the kitchen where my father always listened to the morning news on the radio to find out the results. “Frazier won,” he said, and I was happy.

While I rooted for Frazier in that fight I really think that I rooted against Ali even more. I wasn’t alone; I can remember only one of my friends admitting openly that he wanted Ali to win.

I knew neither fighter personally, you are not surprised to learn, but I nonetheless had strong opinions about them.

Frazier struck me as a solid, quiet, hard-working, rational, determined man; he was the kind of man I admired and the kind of man I wanted to grow up to be. As a boxer, he was effective without being flashy.

Ali, I had concluded on the other hand, was an arrogant, brash, loud-mouthed, egotistical draft-dodger with a strange name and an exotic religion. As a boxer, he was both flashy and effective.

Frazier seemed to represent values and practices that were valued in my home and in my community while Ali seemed to represent values and practices that were not. So, it was simple and easy for me to conclude that Frazier was the good guy and that Ali was the bad guy—and I always pulled for the good guy.

When I saw the pictures of Frazier stalking away from Ali, who was sprawled on the canvas after being floored by the then-champion, I was thrilled to see that the loud-mouthed and arrogant one had been put in his place by the solid and low-key one.

My perspective has changed somewhat over the years. For instance, when it comes to Ali’s refusal to accept induction into the Army, I can, even if I don’t think I would have done the same thing, appreciate his willingness to pay a steep price for the sake of his convictions. Moreover, I admire Ali’s showmanship and the levity he brought to an otherwise brutal sport.

Besides, what really made their 1971 match-up and their two rematches so memorable was the clash of styles—Ali the dancer vs. Frazier the plodder, Ali the boxer vs. Frazier the puncher, Ali the manic vs. Frazier the stoic, and Ali the exotic vs. Frazier the down-to-earth. The drama of it all, not to mention the beauty and wonder of it all, was found exactly in the coming together of their differences in the dance of death that boxing is.

It is good to remember that had Ali not been Ali and had Frazier not been Frazier, then Ali vs. Frazier would not have been Ali vs. Frazier but just another boxing match in the footnotes of the sport’s history.

It is good to remember, too, that if everyone thought and acted the same when it comes to religion or politics or lifestyle or tastes, it would be a very dull and nondescript life in a very dull and nondescript world.

The differences between Frazier and Ali came together and produced something memorable in their battles in the ring.

Maybe we can learn to experience and to appreciate our differences and let them lead us into greater cooperation and creativity without resorting to the conflict that we members of the human race seem so prone to expect and even to seek.

Come Home—Because Home Is Where the Encouragement Is

(A sermon based on Hebrews 10:19-25 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia on Sunday, November 6, 2011)

Encouragement is one of the most important gifts that we can offer each other in our homes. Indeed, home should be a place where we build one another up and where we offer strength to each other. After all, the world is tough and out there we can get beaten up and beaten down a lot and we need for home to be a place where we are accepted and loved and encouraged. How do we encourage each other in our homes? We encourage each other by our presence—by being there for each other, by our example—by living in ways that others can follow, by attitude—by being positive and supportive, and by words—by speaking in ways that build up and lift up.

The condition that must exist if we are to encourage each other in our homes, though, is that we be there. Absentees can’t encourage! Moreover, in being there we must be invested; we must give ourselves over to the dynamics of being a family.

So I am glad that you are here at home—we are a family, you know!—to worship this morning and, since you are here, I want to talk with you about why it is so important that you are here and why it is so important that you keep on being here Sunday after Sunday. I want to talk about why it is so important that we invest ourselves in the life of our family of faith and in the lives of each other.

There are lots of reasons that we come to worship, of course, and we should never forget what the main reason is: we come to worship to praise God for who God is and what God does and especially for the fact that God is our Savior who saves us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us remember also that when we come together—whether we come together to worship through praise, to worship through fellowship, or to worship through service—we come together as the family of faith and it is so important that it is together—and not alone—that we come. It is as John Wesley said, “Christianity is a social religion. To turn it into a solitary affair is to kill it” [Will Willimon, retrieved from on November 1, 2011].

In coming together as the family of faith we affirm the truth that we need God but we also affirm the truth that we need each other. And in acknowledging that we need each other we are on our way to encouraging each other.

On the one hand, it is surprising that we Christians need to be reminded of the importance of coming together for worship. On the other hand, our Bibles bear witness to the fact that Christians have always needed such reminders. So in the book of Hebrews we see the writer telling first century Christians that he did not want them “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some”—just a few decades after Jesus lived, died, and rose again, church folks were already in the habit of not participating in worship!

It is important to remember that worship is a way of life; Paul in Romans reminds us that we are to “present (our) bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is (our) spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). We are in God’s presence all the time and we are Christ’s followers all the time and we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit all the time and we are doing the work of the people of God all the time. So we are all in this together in all things and at all times.

Why do some Christians neglect to meet together? In the case of those first century Christians, there could have been several reasons. First, some may have felt spiritually superior to others and thus felt like they just didn’t need to be with everyone else; they had outgrown the group, they thought. Second, some may have feared being publically identified as Christians with the risks of persecution such identification could bring. Third, some may have maintained their allegiance to their former life in Judaism and may have fallen back into their old worship and fellowship patterns; they were attending both synagogue and church and it became easier just to attend synagogue.

Why do some of our church family members neglect to meet together? Oh, some of them have reasons like they don’t like the preaching or they don’t like the singing or they don’t like the temperature in the sanctuary or they don’t like this or that; we all have things that we don’t like. Some did not invest themselves properly in the life of the church, perhaps through their own neglect or perhaps through the failure of others to invite them in. Some have not given their following of Christ the priority in their lives that is appropriate or have failed to understand that they do not do their following alone and that they thus need to be with other Christians. Some have been discouraged by hypocrisy, whether their own or someone else’s.

Some have decided that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Our former pastor Gene Wilder recently wrote a newsletter column in which he talked about “Greener Grass Syndrome.” Pat and he decided to take an autumn vacation to see the leaves in New England. After noting that the scenery there was pretty but not spectacular, Gene wrote,

Ironically, “spectacular” is the word I most often use to describe the fall landscape of East Tennessee. The beauty I see from my own back porch is without comparison. No New England hill rivals the beauty of the Smoky’s foothills. No New England color is more vibrant that the colors that wash across the landscape that surrounds our church, and no grass is greener than the grass outside my own back door.
It’s easy to get caught up in the Greener Grass Syndrome, isn’t it? Instead of fully appreciating the blessings we have we convince ourselves that the greatest blessings lie in other pastures. We look at our job, our family, our income, even our church and long for something we don’t have. We long for something on the other side; but the other side rarely lives up to our grandiose expectations. More often than not, greener grass is just an illusion, a mirage born of discontent, a fantasy woven with the threads of an unappreciative spirit.
Sadly, those who become fixated on the other side don’t get greener grass. They just become blind to the beauty outside their own back door.
[Gene Wilder, “Wilder’s Words,” The Messenger (Newsletter of the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Tennessee), October 25, 2011]

Those with ears to hear, let them hear!

And, if you truly believe that the grass is greener elsewhere and you must try out that pasture, please know that we bless you on your journey even as we commit to celebrating the green grass that is right here. I know--we have our stuff. But it is our stuff and we will work with it and through it. After all, as Erma Bombeck once said, "The grass is always greener over the septic tank."

Let’s not find excuses not to meet together; instead, let’s come together as a church family to encourage one another and to lift one another up. What are some ways we can do that?

For one thing, we can be here with each other in our worship services. Never forget that the main reason we gather on Sunday mornings is to praise God. Think for a minute, though, about how encouraging we are to each other when we are here together. Think about how your smile or kind word might mean the world to someone on a particular Sunday morning. Think about how much encouragement and energy we give each other when our pews are full. Think about how much our singing together means to each other; just the other day someone told me how they were encouraged by another member’s singing—something that person probably doesn’t even realize. We encourage each other by being here. And, while being here every time the doors are opened is not a measure of the quality of our faith, I must mention how we can encourage each other by our presence on Sunday and Wednesday nights and at our special services of worship, too.

For another thing, we can make an effort to get to know each other. The writer of Hebrews said we should “consider how to provoke one another in love”; we inspire love in each other by getting to know each other and by sharing our lives with each other. Let me make some radical suggestions. First, come to Wednesday night supper and when you come, sit at a different table and talk with different people from time to time. Second, sit in a different section and in a different pew with different people every once in a while. Third, have some folks to your home for dinner or dessert but when you do, invite some close friends and some church members that are not part of your “group.”

For yet another thing, we can join together in ministry and mission efforts. The author of Hebrews also said that we should “consider how to provoke one another to…good deeds.” The church offers all kinds of opportunities for us to come together in doing good deeds. For example, when we have a PACK (Planned Acts of Christian Kindness) Day, call a friend and say, “Let’s go do that together!” Let’s inspire and encourage each other in positive ways to do the good work of ministry together.

We have the blessed opportunity, given to us by the saving actions of our Lord Jesus Christ, to be a family of faith that approaches God together, that affirms our faith together, and that serves God by serving people together. Let’s let our church home be a fellowship of encouragement. Let’s come home so we can encourage one another with the grace and love of the Lord!

Come Home—Because Home is Where the Memory Is

(A sermon for All Saints Day based on Hebrews 12:1-2 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia on October 30, 2011)

This is a day on which the Church looks back and remembers those members of our church family who have finished their race here on earth and have gone home to be with the Lord. For some of us they were members of our family as well as members of our church family. Part of the dynamic of today for all us, then, is grief; we are all processing our grief over the passing from this life of people who, in various ways, meant a lot to us. It is good that we process that grief together; it is good that we acknowledge our loss together; it is good that we encourage these families together; it is good that we celebrate the lives of the departed together.

We are here today, in other words, to practice and to celebrate memory.

When we remember our brothers and sisters who left us during this past year, let us remember them in all their glory—by which I mean let’s remember them in all the aspects of their lives. They were all special, after all, but they were not perfect and that’s a good thing because we all share together in our humanity and it’s good to know that we are all in it together, that we can empathize with one another in our struggles, and that we are all called to keep growing in Christ. Besides, it’s like the bumper sticker puts it: “Christians aren’t perfect—just forgiven,” and one of the main truths we celebrate today is that those we remember today were Christians because they were forgiven by the grace of God through the cross of Jesus Christ.

In other words, in remembering our brothers and sisters today, let’s remember Jesus Christ who is their Savior and ours; let’s remember Jesus Christ who gave his life for them and for us; let’s remember Jesus Christ who is the pioneer and perfecter, the author and finisher, of their faith and of ours.

The unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews motivated his readers by reminding them that they were “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1). While he may have wanted the Hebrews to think in terms of those who had gone before them looking down on them, it is more likely that he wanted them to think in terms of the ways in which those who had gone before them had born witness through their faith. As F. F. Bruce said, “It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them—for encouragement” [F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1964)].

Let’s also remember that our First Baptist sisters and brothers who have left us have now joined that great cloud of witnesses that comprises all the saints of all the ages. When the author of Hebrews listed for his readers some of those who had gone before them, he emphasized their faith, their trust in God. How does the faith of the great saints of the past put us in mind of the faith of our more recently departed saints? How does the faith of the saints of both the distant and recent past inspire us to lay aside the sins and burdens that hold us back and to run with perseverance the race that God has given us to run?

Does the faith of Abel remind us of their faith? Of Abel’s faith the writer says, “He died, but through his faith he still speaks” (11:4). How do we hear the faith of our brothers and sisters still speak to us?

Does the faith of Enoch remind us of their faith? Of Enoch’s faith the writer says that it was through his faith that he “pleased God” (11:5). How do we remember our brothers and sisters displaying the kind of trust that caused them to walk closely with God and thus please God?

Does the faith of Noah remind us of their faith? Of Noah’s faith the writer says that he “respected the warning of God” (v. 7) and carried out the audacious act of constructing the ark. How do we remember our brothers and sisters respecting the words of God so that they by faith practiced radical obedience?

Does the faith of Abraham remind us of their faith? Of Abraham’s faith the writer says that he “obeyed” and “set out, not knowing where he was going” (11:8), that he “received power of procreation, even though he was too old” (11:11), and that he “offered up Isaac” demonstrating that “he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son” (v. 17). How do we remember our brothers and sisters having faith to put one foot in front of the other in following God even though they couldn’t know exactly where that following would lead them? How do we remember them practicing the kind of faith that led to the blessings of God? How do we remember them having the kind of faith that put faithfulness to and obedience to God ahead of clinging to their blessings?

Does the faith of Isaac remind us of their faith? Of Isaac’s faith the writer says that he “invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau” (v. 20). How do we remember our brothers and sisters believing in the future that God has for us?

Does the faith of Moses remind us of their faith? Of Moses’ faith the writer says that “when he was grown up, (he) refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (11:24-25). How do we remember our brothers and sisters living out a faith that led them to stand with the people of God in living in the ways of God rather than standing with the crowd in living in the ways of the world?

So perhaps the faith of the saints of the distant past reminds us in some ways of the faith of saints of the recent past. But everyone is unique and so everyone has to live out her or his own life. Our loved ones lived their own lives of faith and we have to live out our own lives of faith. My encouragement is for all of us to look for good and helpful examples of faith and to look for and to act on the best ways for us to live out our own faith.

Mainly, though, let’s keep our eyes focused on Jesus Christ. All the great saints who lived before Jesus came into the world lived in the trust, the writer of Hebrews says, that something better was coming; they lived looking for a home land that they trusted God had prepared for them. They were in faith looking for Jesus and, in a mysterious way, they found him. Our recently departed loved ones lived and we live after the coming of Jesus and so they looked and we can look to Jesus (12:2) who, because of his death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection, finalizes and fulfills our faith.

Therefore, as we remember our recently departed loved ones and as we remember all the saints of our church and as we remember all the saints of the Church universal and as we remember all the saints of all of history, let us remember first and foremost Jesus Christ our Lord…and in remembering let us be inspired to run the race that is set before us!

Come Home—Because Home is Where the Trouble Is

(A sermon based on Genesis 33:1-17 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia on Sunday, October 23, 2011)

We live in hope of reaching the ideal and our ideal for our homes is that they will be oases of peace and security and well-being. We hold that same ideal for our church homes. The truth is, though, that we don’t reach the ideal at home and we don’t achieve the ideal at church, either.

We shouldn’t be terribly surprised by that, given that the New Testament, which tells us about the lives of some of the earliest churches, reveals that most of those churches were racked by problems ranging from disputes over theology to controversies over personalities. Not much has changed. On the other hand, you would think that in 2000 years we would have made more progress toward the ideal than we have. Oh well.

Today we’re going to think about trouble in the church by looking at some of the trouble that occurred in the family of Isaac, particularly as those troubles involved Isaac and Rebekah’s sons Esau and Jacob.

The truth is, of course, that the family of Isaac did not constitute a church; they did, however, constitute the people of God and so the parallels are, I believe, legitimate.

So--why does trouble come to our church home?

First, trouble comes from the quest for power and prestige. Jacob was born seeking power and prestige; he and Esau were twins and we’re told that when Esau was born first his brother Jacob was holding onto his heel. In the first post-birth encounter between the brothers about which we’re told, Jacob took advantage of an opening to claim the birthright—the right to the greater inheritance and to the primary place in the family tree—that by birth order belonged to Esau.

Sometimes trouble comes in the church because of the quest for power and prestige. Now, the church needs leaders but we get into trouble when our leadership standards and styles are dictated by utilitarianism (what works) or by egotism (what works to my advantage). Our leadership standards and styles are to be dictated by the words and by the life of our Lord Jesus who said to his disciples who were jockeying for position, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

Second, sometimes trouble comes from machination and manipulation. Jacob took advantage of Esau’s weakness in taking his birthright; Rebekah and Jacob took advantage of Isaac’s multiple weaknesses in stealing Esau’s blessing. In the first situation, it seems that Jacob acted on impulse but in the second situation there was much preplanning and preparatory plotting. The bottom line is that Jacob manipulated Esau and Isaac to his own advantage in order to get what he wanted.

In all situations Christians should treat people like people and not like objects to be manipulated and maneuvered for our own benefit. That is part of the point behind Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount—not only are we not to take physical advantage of someone but we are also to be growing in heart and spirit so that we don’t even think of or see someone as an object to be used. We get into trouble in the church when we work behind the scenes to manipulate people and situations for what we believe to be our own benefit.

Third, trouble comes from the misuse of personal strengths. Esau was “a skillful hunter, a man of the field” while Jacob was “a quiet man, living in tents” (25:27). We get the idea from the stories about them that Esau was characterized by impulsiveness and a strong awareness of his physical needs while Jacob was characterized by cleverness and shrewdness. But Esau fell prey to his impulsiveness and his appetites while Jacob fell prey to his cleverness and shrewdness. As a friend of mine says, “Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.”

We all have strengths but those strengths can become weaknesses if we let ourselves misuse them. You might, for example, have the gift of gab; you might be a very good talker and that is a gift that can be used for the good of the kingdom—but it is also a gift that can be used to hurt people or to manipulate situations or to stir up things behind the scenes. We all have spiritual gifts that come to us by the grace of God but we can let them become weaknesses. You might, for example, have the spiritual gift of wisdom but it can become a weakness if you let yourself think that you always know better than anyone else.

Fourth, trouble comes from the willingness to settle for the quick and the expedient. Esau had the birthright in his possession; it was his to hold onto. One day when Esau came in from the field he was famished and Jacob was cooking some stew; when Esau asked for some of it Jacob offered to trade him a bowl for his birthright. It is obvious that Jacob had his eyes on the long term while Esau had his stomach set on the short term and they both got what they wanted. Esau traded his future for a bowl of stew.

We get in trouble in the church when we settle for the quick and the expedient rather than doing our ministry in ways that will best contribute to the long-term health of the church and to the long-term good of God’s kingdom. There are things we could do that would guarantee that we would have a house full of folks next Sunday; we could give away a car or we could have an entertainer in the pulpit or we could stir up a controversy—but at what price would we have our big crowd and what cost to our presentation of Jesus would we have a big Sunday? We do things in a more healthy way when we do the daily work of worship, of prayer, of Bible study, and of ministry—all by the grace of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit—that bear effective and appropriate witness to the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself up for us and for everyone else.

Fifth, trouble comes from the playing of favorites. Rebekah preferred Jacob while Isaac preferred Esau; it takes little imagination to know that such favoritism in a family will wreak havoc in the home.

It is in some ways natural that we will develop closer relationships with some than with others in the church; we all gravitate toward those with similar interests and similar backgrounds and similar mindsets. We need to make an inward commitment, though, to view absolutely everyone as being as important and vital as anyone else and we need to let that inward commitment lead to outward actions. Sit somewhere else next Sunday and speak to different people; come to Wednesday night supper and fellowship around the tables; invite someone you know well and someone you don’t to your home for a meal or for dessert and share your lives with one another. We avoid trouble and build health when we build broader and deeper relationships.

Sixth, last, and hardest—trouble comes from the purposes of God. We err if we don’t remember that somehow, while Jacob and Esau’s choices mattered—and while our choices matter—we have to contend with the purposes of God that can and do bring their own trouble. When Rebekah was pregnant with the twin boys she was having a difficult time and when she prayed about it the Lord told her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (25:23). So—even though Jacob stole what belonged to Esau somehow it was all working within the larger purposes of God.

Go figure.

This much I know—there is trouble that is worth having in the church. Trouble that comes from selfishness or from small-mindedness or from greed or from thin skin or from fear or from pride is not worth having—although we’re going to have it anyway. But trouble that comes from trying to do things God’s way—that’s trouble worth having. And what is God’s way? “The elder will serve the younger.” Or, as Mary the mother of Jesus sang, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Or, as the Apostle Paul put it, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). God, you see, is very interested in reversals; God is very interested in elevating the week over the strong and the foolish over the wise and the poor over the rich; God is very interested in turning the world upside down—all of which we can participate in, as much trouble as it will bring us, if we will do things in God’s way as revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Most of our trouble, though, has been and is with each other. What do we do with it? Well, after many, many years, Esau and Jacob reconciled. When Esau welcomed his brother, Jacob said, among other things, “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (33:10). We need to remember that we see the face of God in each other’s faces, that we love God by loving each other. That’s the ideal toward which we are to be growing.

That doesn’t mean we’ll always get it just right or find complete reconciliation. After all, after their big reconciliation scene and despite all their noble words, Jacob and Esau ended up living far away from each other, living the lives that God had given them to live.

Still…let us, by the grace of God, try.

There’s trouble here, but it’s still home. There’s trouble here, but let’s try not to let it be our trouble. There’s trouble here, but let’s live through it and in it. There’s trouble here, but let’s pray and live so that it will be God’s kind of trouble.

Come Home—Because Home is Where the Family Is

(A sermon based on Matthew 12:46-50 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia on Sunday, October 16, 2011)

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” said the poet Robert Frost. Another way to say that is to say that home is where your family is because, usually, your family will take you in even if and even when no one else will.

Our families care about us and care for us because of the ties that bind us together. Those ties might be common blood, common experiences, common heritage, or common history—or all of those at the same time. Jesus, like anyone else born into this world, had such a family. Mary was his mother and, while his true Father was in heaven, he was raised by Joseph the carpenter. Jesus also had brothers and sisters.

Ordinarily, our family members are interested in and concerned about us and so it was with the family of Jesus. So Matthew tells us that one day Jesus’ mother and brothers came wanting to speak to him; we’re not told why, although in Mark’s Gospel this story appears right after one in which Mark says that “his family…went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). Perhaps, then, Jesus’ family was still trying to, from their point of view, help Jesus while, from his point of view, they were trying to interfere with his ministry.

As important as we consider family to be in our place and time, it may have been even more important in the place and time in which Jesus lived because in that first century Jewish culture family bonds were considered central to everything in life. So for Jesus to say what he said in response to his family’s request to speak with him would have been truly shocking to those who heard him. For he said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then he looked at his followers and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

One thing we learn from these words of Jesus is that to be followers of Jesus means to be members of his family. In other words, being followers of Jesus is what comes to define who we are; being members of Jesus’ family becomes even more important than being members of our own families.

That is not to say that our families become unimportant to us or that we are to stop caring about our families. Indeed, when we are filled with the love of Jesus we are empowered to love our families with a much greater and more appropriate love than we were before; having God come first in our lives and having our family commitments subsumed under our commitment to God protects us from turning our families into idols or from expecting more from them than they are able to bear.

It is to say, though, that our commitment to God comes ahead of our commitment to our family because our identification with the family of God comes ahead of our identification with our family of origin or our family of marriage. For proof of that truth we need look no farther than the place where Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38).

Think of it this way: I was a Ruffin before I was a Christian, but now that I follow Jesus, I am a Christian before I am a Ruffin. If you are a follower of Jesus, substitute your family name and you will tell the truth about yourself.

A second thing we learn from these words of Jesus is that to be members of Jesus’ family means that we belong to him and to each other. One cannot be family by oneself. A Bantu proverb puts it, “A person is a person because of other persons" [Anthony B. Robinson, Common Grace: How to Be a Person and Other Spiritual Matters (Seattle: Sasquatch, 2006), p. 84]. That is generally true but it is especially true in the Christian family where we are bound to each other by the Son of God, by the Spirit of God, by the grace of God, and by the love of God. God is our Father; Jesus is our Brother; and we are all sisters and brothers to one another. We do not become Christians to follow Jesus by ourselves; we become Christians to follow Jesus together as a family of faith. When we baptize people we baptize them into the community of faith; they become members of the Body of Christ.

The family ties between us as members of Jesus’ family are stronger than any other bonds we might have. It leads us to want to be together as a family. In a sense, every Sunday we have a family reunion and it should be our heart’s desire to be together every time we gather. Some extended families have a regular meal together each week or each month and everyone in the family makes a special effort to be present because everyone recognizes that it is important to be with the family. Well, it is even more important that the members of the family of Jesus get together to worship God, to pray, to read the Bible, to fellowship, and to serve. That’s how we grow together in our relationship with God and with each other.

A third thing we learn from Jesus’ words is that to be members of Jesus’ family means to do the will of God. Jesus said that whoever does the will of his Father in heaven is a member of his family. That realization is not surprising given that Jesus once said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34). In other words, to do the will of his Father was what gave sustenance and nourishment to the life of Jesus; indeed, to do the will of his Father was the life of Jesus. Here in the family of God we are about doing the will of God in our individual lives and in our life as a church. That is our food; that is our life. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—and we mean it! We want God’s will to be done in our lives and in the lives of other people.

This raises the question of how we go about knowing and doing the will of God.

The primary answer to that question is that we look to the life of Jesus our Lord. After all, he is the only one who got doing the Father’s will absolutely right. Jesus is the full revelation of God and of God’s will to us and so not only can we do no better but we can do no other than to look to him to find out who we are to be and what we are to do. That does not mean that we just try to copy Jesus’ life; that is impossible since no one can mimic any other person’s life. Besides, Jesus did God’s will by being who Jesus was supposed to be; we have to do God’s will be being who we are supposed to be. As the church father Irenaeus put it, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Every person has his or her vocation; every person has his or her family; every person has his or her hobbies; every person has his or her likes and dislikes.

To do the will of God together is not to walk in lock-step or to be clones of Jesus or of one another. It is to take seriously, though, the fact that we are the Body of Christ and that through the Holy Spirit the Christ who is our life lives in us.

To do the will of God like Jesus did it, though, is to be obedient to the Father’s will and way as it is revealed in Jesus. That is why it is so important that the family of God gets together to worship and to pray and to study the Bible and to fellowship and to serve; our worship keeps us open to the way of Jesus; our Bibles tell us of the way of Jesus, our prayers lead us into the way of Jesus, our fellowship encourages us in the way of Jesus, and our service trains us in the way of Jesus.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do to try to do the will of God in the way of Jesus is to try to do the will of God in the way of Jesus. And make no mistake about it—it is a way about which we are talking [Cf. Morris Ashcraft, The Will of God (Nashville: Broadman, 1980), pp. 132 ff.]. We will not often find exact instructions for how we are to handle a particular situation but what we will find is growth and maturity and progress in living as we continually and methodically and habitually and willingly walk in the way of Jesus as we participate in the Body of Christ which is his Church.

It sounds so basic but it is so important: we are, as best as we can discern it (and we will seldom know it for sure), to be obedient to God’s will for us. And so we close with a parable of Jesus:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’” (Matthew 21:28-30)

When it comes to doing what God wants us to do, have we been saying “Yes” but living “No”? Or have we been saying “No” but coming around to “Yes”? We can always be growing to the place where we say “Yes” and mean “Yes,” regardless of how challenging God’s will is—but we best do that as a family.

That’s why we need to Come home; that’s why we need each other.

How do you need to come home? How do you need to be with your family?

Come Home—Because Home Is Where the Heart Is

(A sermon based on Luke 12:32-34 preached at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald on Sunday, October 9, 2011)

One of the words we use to refer to church is “home”; we say things like “First Baptist is my church home” or “First Baptist is my home church.” During the next few weeks I want us to consider together the ways in which we might need to come home to our church home.

Church is home, you see, because church is where the family of God gets together.

During my college years I was called to serve as pastor of the Fairmount Baptist Church outside of Sparta, Georgia. It was in some ways a very good position. The congregation only gathered for worship on the fourth Sunday of each month; my salary was $60 per service plus lunch that was shared with us by a rotation of three families. It was an odd situation, though, in that the worship service amounted to a monthly community reunion. People came from all over the area; one fellow even drove 70 miles to get there. Most of the people in worship were members of other churches and attended those churches on the other Sundays of the month. But they came together once a month because there was something in that place and in those people that they treasured. And if someone was not there they were missed.

It was clear that for those people who gathered in that place once a month, there was something at Fairmount Baptist Church that they treasured and so there was a sense in which their heart was there; it was clear because of the effort they made to get there. I hope, though, that their real treasure was actually found in and that their hearts were actually oriented toward something and somewhere beyond that old white church building. And, as much as I want us to love First Baptist Church and as much as I want us to be committed to it, I want us to be clear that our true loyalty goes much deeper than that because our true identity goes much deeper than that.

Our true identity is that we are part of the kingdom of God; our true place of belonging is in the kingdom of God. But what does that mean? Dallas Willard has explained it well. Someone’s kingdom, Willard said, is the arena within which his or her “effective will” can be exercised. In other words, my kingdom is what I can pretty well control and determine by my will and my decisions. So, my kingdom involves little things like what clothes I will wear, what sports teams I will support, what I will eat for breakfast, and what I will watch on television. It also involves big things like what I will do for a living, what causes I will support, how I will relate to my family, and with what congregation I will worship and fellowship. Our kingdom involves whatever we can directly affect [Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 21]. We are each the king or queen of our own little kingdom.

But, as Willard put it,

Now God’s own ‘kingdom,’ or ‘rule,’ is the range of his effective will, where what he wants done is done. The person of God himself and the action of his will are the organizing principles of his kingdom, but everything that obeys those principles, whether by nature or by choice is within his kingdom
(Willard, Conspiracy, p. 21).

So Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (v. 32). Do you hear that? God very much wants to give us the kingdom. God very much wants us to live in the awareness that our lives are a part of what God is doing in all of God’s vast creation and in all of God’s vast purpose. The kingdom is our home.

And home is where we should feel safe and secure; home is where we should not be afraid.

In light of our being at home in the kingdom of God, of what should we not be afraid? Don’t be afraid of this life; don’t be afraid about what you will eat or drink or wear and don’t be afraid about bank accounts or investments or anything else. Why not? Because we belong to something bigger, we belong to something better, we belong to something eternal, and we belong to something unfailing.

But what do we treasure? What do we really value? It’s easy to determine what we treasure because we give our lives—our hearts, our will, our efforts—to the pursuit of that which we treasure. There are things that are fleeting and temporary that we need and we are to do our part in acquiring them—but we cannot give the fullness of our devotion over to them. There are things that are earthly but are yet very important and we should give them their appropriate place in our lives—family and friends, for example—but we are not to give the fullness of our devotion over to them. Think of how life will be different, though—how it will be more focused and vital, how it will be bigger and broader, how it will be more Christ-like—if we treasure our life in God, our life in the kingdom of God, more than we treasure anything else.

“The first thing the word home brings to mind is a place,” Frederick Buechner said [Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 13], and that is certainly true, but the first that home actually is is a life and the kingdom of God, which is our true home, is our true life. It is a life that we have because Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, came into this world to live it among us and to bring it to us. It is a life that we have because we can enter it through the death of Jesus on the cross and through his resurrection from the dead.

So Paul said, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3). That is the way it is now. We live in the kingdom of God now; our life is hidden with Christ in God now. Granted, a great fulfillment is coming one day; Paul went on to say, “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).

All of this is ours because of God’s grace. But we do have a role and responsibility which is to lay up treasure on heaven and not on earth and to seek the things that are above and not the things that are below. We do that in our individual lives but we also do it in our life as the Body of Christ, as the community of faith—and that brings us back to the church.

The church is one of God’s vital vehicles through which we strive for the kingdom of God. The church offers the disciplines through which we put ourselves in a position to receive the grace of God and to experience the Spirit of God. We strive for God’s kingdom through worship—what does the way you pursue worship indicate about how much you treasure God’s kingdom? We strive for God’s kingdom through Bible study—what does the way you pursue Bible study indicate about how much you treasure God’s kingdom? We strive for God’s kingdom through service—what does the way you pursue service indicate about how much you treasure God’s kingdom?

The kingdom of heaven, of which the church is a vital right here and right now expression, is our true home. That’s where our true treasure is. That’s where our heart is.

Think about what you really treasure; think about that to which you give your heart.

Is there somewhere that you need to leave and come back to your true home?