Recovering our Fear

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Advent is a season of waiting… remembering Israel’s wait for Christ to come, and the Church’s wait for his return in glory. As we wait, it is so easy to lose focus and get busied with routine joys and routine troubles while forgetting about Christ at all. This isn’t a new struggle.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor in the days leading up to World War II and was persecuted (and eventually killed at Hitler’s direct command) for his role in opposing the Nazi regime. The following quote comes from Bonhoeffer’s sermon on the first Sunday of Advent in 1935 as Hitler’s power in Germany was increasing. Keep Bonhoeffer’s context in mind as you read this excerpt from this Advent sermon based out of Revelation 14:6-13.

And the speech of the angel is so simple that anyone could understand it: “fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment is come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the springs of water.” That is the first command of the gospel. “Fear God” and you will have nothing else to fear.

Don’t fear what the next day may bring. Don’t fear other people. Don’t fear violence and power, even when it comes to you personally and can rob you of your life. Don’t fear the high and mighty in the world. Don’t fear yourself. Don’t fear your sins. All these fears will die. From all these fears you will be set free. For they are no longer there. But fear God and him alone. For he has the power over all the powers of this world. The whole world is in fear of God. He has power to give us life or to destroy us. All other powers are a mere game.

God alone is real, seriously real. Fear God seriously and “give him the glory.” He would be acknowledged as the creator, as our creator; he would be acknowledged as the reconciler, who has made peace between God and man; he would be acknowledged as redeemer, who at the end sets us free from all our sins and all our burdens. Honor him and his holy gospel, “because the hour of his judgment is come.” And this judgment is the gospel itself. The eternal gospel is the judge of all peoples.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Remembrance Sunday: Who and What is Babylon?” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 111.

Bonhoeffer emphasizes throughout the remainder of the sermon that the gospel is the only message of salvation. Even while he states, “The eternal gospel is the judge of all peoples,” it is important to hear the rest of his message about the gospel – it is not a message of damnation, but of reconciliation with God and freedom from all fears. It is only through the gospel that men and women can live with the right kind of fear: fear of God.

However you approach the Christmas season, and much is often made about how difficult this season is for many, let this be a time to reset your fear. Do not fear death. Do not fear judgment. Do not fear all sorts of other fearful things…. fear God. For in the end, when everything else has been subject to judgment, He remains. He is victorious. This is Good News indeed.

What Makes a Good Sermon?

Ask any church goer and you’ll hear a wide range of characteristics for a good sermon. Some people are looking for compelling stories, others want to laugh, and still others are turned off by humor and desire pure teaching. Here are the characteristics that I keep in mind while preparing to preach.

1. Be biblical

This seems like a no-brainer, but there are plenty of sermons which reference the Bible but they are not built on a foundation of Scripture. Sometimes the preacher seems to have an idea what he wants to say and then uses a Bible verse here or there to prove his point. This is not a biblical sermon. If the Word of God is living and active, a double edged sword that is God-breathed, then we should keep Scripture front-and-center.

2. Be Gospel-Centered

I know “gospel centered” has become something of a cliche over the last five years, but it’s a helpful (and biblical) grid through which to operate. If a sermon doesn’t clearly lead to gospel proclamation, and if it doesn’t clearly flow from the fruit of the gospel… then it isn’t a Christian sermon in any meaningful way. Many preachers have fallen off the cliff of works-righteousness in the attempt to be relevant (“Four keys to building a great marriage,” or “How to be the best you”). Sermons should be robustly biblical and gospel-centered.

3. Be clear

What good is brilliance if it’s so blinding you can’t behold it? Instead, I have always agreed with those who claim you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to a child. Preachers spend an average of 12-20 hours each week on their sermon but the people who listen only hear the final result. Gone are the days when preachers can reasonably assume any measure of biblical literacy, so using phrases like “Most of you know this verse already” only makes to those who don’t “already know” feel stupid and small and unwelcome. If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying clearly enough for everyone to understand. I generally keep seven specific people in mind while preparing the message: a child (kids over age 7 sit through our entire worship service), a teenager, a young parent, a businessman, a tradesman, a nonbeliever (who may be skeptical but is interested enough to attend a worship service), and a senior saint who has faithfully served Christ for decades. If these people can each understand what I have down on paper, then I’m ready to preach.

4. Be helpful

This is where the rubber meets the road and the sermon connects or falls flat. Rather than trying to be relevant, I find it more fruitful to pursue helpfulness. Here are some questions I consider: “What is confusing about this passage that needs to be explained?” “Where does our culture today agree and disagree with this message?” “What challenges will people face in the call to embrace this teaching?” “What is going on in our church where this message applies to either encourage or correct us?”

If a sermon hits in these four marks, I think it will demonstrate pastoral love for the listeners, reverence to the Lord in how Scripture is handles carefully, and great joy because it is anchored in God’s provision through Jesus Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit.

One final thing to note is this – every preacher needs to first listen to the sermon the Holy Spirit is preaching to him through his sermon preparation. If the preacher hasn’t first been moved by God’s Word through the preparation process then his sermon will be flat, one-dimensional, and either dryly-academic or hypocritical.

Why Did God Need to Become Human? (aka: Why Christmas?)

Baby feet

A young grade-schooler came home recently with a packet of “Holidays Around the World.” In it, religious holidays were described only according to the ways they’re celebrated. Hanukkah was described as eight days when people light candles. Christmas is a day when Santa Claus comes to deliver presents to children and people decorate with Christmas trees and lights on their houses.

Describing Christmas by pointing to Christmas trees and Santa Claus is like describing Independence Day by talking about fireworks and Uncle Sam.

The gospel is at the heart of Christmas: the gift of salvation through the life and work of Jesus Christ. But why did Jesus need to be fully man and fully God? As St. Anselm asked, “Why the God-Man?Continue reading

What is Advent? (not only for Catholics)

God isn’t honored by Christians becoming “scrooges” who criticize everything about the Christmas season in an effort to “purify” Christmas. At the same time, don’t allow yourself to lose Jesus under the Christmas tree. Unfortunately, I know quite a few Christians who fall into both of those extremes. Recovering the Advent Season is our best way to be joyfully focused on God during this Christmas season.

Advent is more than a calendar with cheap chocolate leading up to December 25th. It is a season of “expectant waiting.” Does that describe your attitude today, or are you so bogged down by busyness and shopping that you don’t have time to expect anything but stress? The article below summarizes the message and meaning of Advent for the everyday Christian.

This season, create space to slow down. Watch less TV. Delete social media apps from your phone. Wake up earlier. Do what you need to do to spend time in Scripture each day, meditating on God’s work of salvation and his glorious promises to his children.

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Daily Living in Light of Eternity: The New Heavens and New Earth

When you think about “heaven,” what comes to mind?

Many people think about about clouds, white light, pearly gates, and eternal happiness. My mind was completely blown when I discovered that Scripture teaches about eternity as a physical life. I had always imagined that heaven would be some disembodied life, floating around as spirits who are worshipping before God’s throne.

But the Bible consistently teaches about an eternal, earthly kingdom where God’s people will live. The New Testament calls this the “New Heavens and New Earth.” Here just a few places in Scripture that point to our future eternal-bodily life.

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Is the Christian a Saint or Sinner?

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Every Christian continues to endure temptation and sinful desires… sometimes victoriously, and sometimes we indulge our sinful nature. How should we make sense of this?

Sometimes we can get the impression that once we become Christians our lives are immediately characterized by holiness and purity. But that’s just not the case. Sometimes, yes, the Lord graciously frees us from crushing temptations or addictions; but most Christians experience a more gradual and subtle growth in holiness.

I know some people who have seriously struggled with the question, “Am I really a Christian?” because of their lingering struggles with specific temptations (usually sexual ones). With this in mind, I believe Martin Luther’s theology of Christian identity as “Simultaneously Saint and Sinner” is extremely helpful. Continue reading

Christian Hope is Not a Wish

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Hope is more than a wish. It’s a confident expectation that the future is bright and that good things await. A wish, however, is a shot-in-the-dark… like heading into a test that you didn’t study for, and just wishing to do well. Hope is built on a foundation; wishes float “out there” without any real substance.

The Christian life is built on a foundation of hope, not upon a wish.

The Foundation of Christian Hope
One of my favorite people in the Bible is the Apostle Thomas. After Jesus’ death, all the disciples were in the Upper Room when Jesus suddenly appeared (even though the doors were all locked, because they were afraid of being arrested). The disciples saw Jesus, talked with him, and were astounded that he was alive again. They had heard the rumors, but now they saw him with their own eyes. But Thomas wasn’t there. In days that followed, Thomas would insist that he wouldn’t believe unless he could put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands. That week must have been excruciating for Thomas… feeling hopeless while everyone else is full of hope.

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Every Christian is a Minister: The Priesthood of All Believers

Who leads Christ’s Church? One of the greatest treasures of the Protestant Reformation is a recovery of the “Priesthood of all believers.” This teaching proclaims that every Christian has access to God the Father because the Holy Spirit has united us with Christ. Because of our standing before God, every Christian is a priest (or minister) in our world.

Today I want to emphasize two things: first, where does the Bible teach “Priesthood of all believers,” and second, what the Priesthood of All Believers actually means for the Christian’s daily life.

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What Jesus Meant by Entering the Kingdom as Children

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I am convinced one of the most misunderstood Bible passages is where Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4) Why would Jesus say we need to enter the kingdom of heaven as children?

I’ve heard many explanations about how children are obedient and respectful, and so we should be the same way towards God. At the risk of sounding like a terrible parent, this simply isn’t how I’d describe my parenting experience. Being a father is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Sometimes it’s downright painful. Kids have a way of knowing they’re not in control but they keep grasping for authority.

Don’t we do that same thing to God? We know we aren’t in control, but we grab every opportunity whenever a window cracks open to exert our authority and try to grab control over life. Like the child who wants a suitable explanation for every decision, we keep asking God, “Why? Why? Why?” And if his answers are unacceptable (or if he simply says, “Because I said so.”) then we stomp our feet and look for someone else to tell us what we want to hear.

We don’t enter the kingdom of heaven as children because we have become so gentle and obedient. We enter as children because of our Heavenly Father. To boil it down is this: Christians have been adopted as children of God. This is why Jesus said you must be like a child to enter the kingdom.

When the disciples tried to keep the children from coming to Jesus, I am convinced that Jesus was urging his disciples to remember their status as disciples had nothing to do with their own importance. The disciples believed they were more important than those kids. But Jesus rebuked them and set them straight. Only those who are children of God will enter the Kingdom of God. It depends on their relationship with the Father, not because of their own value.

Remember, in the ancient world, children had barely any status – their value and importance came from their daddy. The good news of the gospel is this, “But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Those who lay down their status and declare their only entrance into heaven comes from Jesus Christ their Savior (remember, the end of Mt. 17 emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God)… those are the people who will be given entrance. Salvation isn’t a result of works, it is a gift of grace because you have been adopted as a child of God (Eph 2:8-10).

So next time you hear someone talking about how Jesus wants us to be gentle and cuddly little kids, you can smile to yourself and say, “Yes, we should be that too. But we aren’t. In fact, lots of times we’re pretty disrespectful children. Praise be to God that he’s a gracious Father!”

Why Can’t God Overlook Sin?

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23

The paycheck of sin is death. That is what we’ve earned. And yet, many of us struggle with the teaching that momentary sins would receive eternal death – it seems awfully extreme. It is a common question: “If God is love, why can’t God overlook sin?”

  • Johnny has disobeyed his parents all day long but expects to get rewarded with ice cream at the end of the day.
  • Suzie is hoping for a pay raise or promotion at her next review, even though she routinely ignores her boss’ instructions and does things her own way instead.
  • Bill doesn’t understand why he failed his math exam. After all, he recently discovered a whole new way of doing math that’s better than the “old way” of the past.

These simple examples reflect the justice and love of God. It would not be right or “good” for Johnny, Suzie, or for Bill to be rewarded. They have all disregarded human authority who has been rightly placed over them. And if it is good for us to receive appropriate discipline by human authority, why would God overlook our sin?

Forgiveness

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