A Correct Perspective

When Jesus was about to die, he looked at his disciples and told them “You will all fall away…”  Jesus was clearly not concerned with his disciples’ self-esteem. If Jesus were concerned with his disciples’ having a positive self-image, He wouldn’t have said half of the things He did say. Even the gentle calls to “remain in Me” (John 15:4) are preceded and followed by phrases that mark our inadequacies. (e.g. “apart from Me you can do nothing…” John 15:5) along with warnings of destruction. (e.g.  “If anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers… thrown into the fire, and burned.” John 15:6) Why so harsh? Why is it that Jesus is so confrontational? Wouldn’t it be more encouraging to hear Jesus say something like, “Hey guys, you’re great! I really want you to follow me, because I think the world of you!” (big smile and thumbs up.) But, that is not how this Jesus thing works.

Following Christ must be done from a position of need. Not His need for you, but your need for Him! This is why Jesus is so clear when He speaks to His disciples. You see, He does value you. Not because you’re awesome, but because you’re so inadequate. Jesus’ words are piercing and convicting precisely because you are not righteous and you are in desperate need of righteousness so that you can stand before God. His words are not simply hard for the sake of being hard, they are hard because they are true. Christ sets in front of us His character and we are immediately confronted with our great need for Him.

The remarkable role of the church on this earth is to set that character before a world of people who are ignorant of Christ. The church is supposed to be the canvas on which people can see the character and nature of God. (1 John 4:12) If we are living in loving community, then the world will get a glimpse of God! The call to the church is to reveal the image of God on this earth! If we are to accomplish so great a task we cannot persist in self-exalting righteousness. We cannot insist that we are good enough and that our goodness/attractiveness is why you should join a church. Following Christ must be done from a position of weakness and need. In the same way, our weakness and need must be on display if we are to show the world our Great Savior. Our communities must be centered on the reality that Jesus is Savior, knowing God is great, and we are inadequate without Him.

I believe this is why Jesus was so hard on His disciples. He wanted them to know Him and they were incapable of doing so without recognizing their own unrighteousness. When we, as Christians fail to measure up we fight and bicker over nonsense. When we think we are good enough, we argue over carpet color and attendance. Don’t be dismayed, the church has always struggled with this. James deals with it quite directly in James 4:1-10:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you

Did you notice the prescription at the end? It comes in verses 7-10. You must recognize your unrighteousness before a holy God. This is the basis for understanding and living in Christian community.

At Sovereign Grace Fellowship we are striving to live this out. If these words resonate with you or you’re simply interested in learning more, come check it out.

You can find more about what we believe here: Sovereign Grace Fellowship Documents

You can hear recent messages here: Sovereign Grace Fellowship Podcast

You can view supplemental materials on our YouTube channel here: The Deep End

And you can check out more on our website here (under construction):sgfbrazoria.org

 

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Luke 13

capital punishmentImagine a leader standing in front of a crowd of people. He is asked about a the death penalty and whether or not the guillotine should be used. The political nature of the question masks the rage of a crowd that clearly feels as though the government has been unjustly applying capital punishment. That leader then takes the opportunity to tell you, “unless you repent of sin, you are going to die!” Now imagine that leader to be a prominent religious figure. Now imagine that person being Jesus… because that’s what happens in Luke 13.

Jesus receives a report of the local governor’s brutal execution and subsequent denigration of his own religious sacrificial system. The circumstances in which the report is received are a bit odd. (You can read this passage here.) Jesus has been teaching a crowd of people for the previous several chapters. So The Teacher is interrupted with a political struggle. I can imagine the reporters faces. Brows slightly furrowed, pleading eyes, clinched fists. I imagine them hoping to make Jesus angry enough to get some inflammatory rhetoric about the Roman governor. Just think of the scene, anger begins to fill the crowd over the brutality of the oppressive regime. As the fervor rises, they anticipate Jesus’ soaring and inspiring call to arms. Instead, they get something totally different.

Jesus’ response ignores the politics lands squarely at the feet of those would be revolutionaries. A common occurrence when challenging God’s plan. He responds with, “You think you’re better than those who have died unjustly? You think Karma is to blame? You think you can stand where they failed?” (John Elkins Paraphrase) The response is scathing and levels the self-righteousness of the mighty religious rebels. All indignation is flattened. Jesus has a remarkable way of drilling into our souls and turning the tables to make us introspective in the face of our accusations of others. Jesus uses this method still. As we read the words of Jesus we cannot help but turn our attention to our own soul. In the face of a mighty Savior, we are unable to keep pointing our fingers at others.

Now, the stage is set. Our self-inflated importance has been flattened. Our perspective has shifted to our own wickedness and we are no longer able to point at someone else. Now the Messiah enters with a compelling call to repent: “No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus essentially just said, “repent or die unexpectedly!” What a bizarre way to call someone to repent! There is no talk of heaven or comfort. No discourse on justice and theodicy. No arguments about the character of God or the need for faith. Jesus calls them to repent and warns them that they may die unexpectedly. Then he launches into a story about a fig tree that will get cut down and burned in the fire because it bears no fruit. Just saying, if I was one of the reporters of the Galileans I’d be super confused.

The parable is about a man who owns a fig tree and wants to cut it down and a vinedresser buys the tree one more year before he cuts it down. So the call to repent comes with a warning that they don’t have much time but the vinedresser has bought them a little.

You have little time left here. It is time to stop trying to do right on your own and to trust Him for what He has done. Repent, Obey, Follow… that is what you are called to. Learn to walk with Jesus, it is your only hope.

Preparation in the Pulpit

dda86-bible-on-a-pulpitThis is part 3 of a series…  You can find the others here Part 1, Part 2

3 to 8 months ahead. That’s how far ahead I plan out sermons. It sounds extreme, but it’s really not. I often line out an entire book of the Bible and then plan a rough outline 3 to 8 months ahead for each sermon. Take a moment and think about it. Your job as a pastor is to teach the Bible and disciple people. This is supposed to be a labor founded on a consistent relationship with the Word. Further, the Word is already written… you’re not having to wait for God to speak, He has spoken already! Therefore, it should be logical that you can be at least a few months ahead but would ideal to be about 8 months ahead. This is simply a matter of best practice. There is no excuse for pastors to wing it in any sphere of their work, especially in the teaching ministry.

To most pastors, preparing ahead is a foreign concept. It is not for lack of motivation that preachers fail in planning ahead, nor is it for lack of vision. Most pastors have a great deal of vision and motivation. I believe most pastors just don’t know better. They may have some idea of how to schedule or plan ahead, but the task seems so arduous that they cannot bring themselves to sit down to line out a plan.

To be fair, preparation is done in the heart first, not merely on paper. Many pastors prepare with great vigor the sermon from their heart and not on paper. That’s fine, consider the following two examples:

I stood next to a beloved pastor and friend as he exclaimed, “I never prepare a sermon until the day of! I ask the Lord what He wants me to say in the morning and then I go say it!” Two young men who were with me were stunned. This man is an honorable man who loves the Lord. He teaches well and engages his audience well. I believe he listens to the Lord and walks closely with Him.

Contrast that with another man of God who manuscripts his sermons and is always a year ahead in his preparation. When asked about the movement of the Spirit in his sermons he responded, “The Lord moves in my life every day and every time I meet with Him in my study. As I study the Word to prepare to teach, He speaks and I listen. What my people hear in my teaching is the result of the Spirit moving over long periods of listening and waiting.”

Both men are great teachers of the Word… both study, work, and pray hard… both men are engaging a lost world with the Gospel. One has a plan, the other is simply running. Personally, I prefer the plan and here is why:

  1. The plan gives me freedom. When I started in ministry I wrote each sermon the week of. It was exciting and often felt almost miraculous. Over time I noticed a peculiar result. No matter how hard I tried I could not find vision or think with a long term view. So I tried planning out text, topic, title, and basic outline of sermons. The result was a sudden freedom to look ahead and engage my people. Further, because it is planned out, I know what I am able to deviate from. It allows me the freedom to say, “The Lord is moving in a unique way this week, so we’ll just go with it.” Because I have planned ahead, I am free to deviate from that plan. If I have not planned out the work, I bear the stress of trying to hold on to the work of teaching. If I have planned, I’m free to relax and obey the Spirit joyfully and not out of anxiousness.
  2. The plan helps to ensure that I am not going to speak from my own selfish desires or pet issues from the week and forces me to look at what the Bible says. Too often modern preachers speak from a self-righteous condemnation of pet sins and political issues. Pastors will use their pulpits to address the problems they have during the week. The Lord has much more to say to the people than our opinionated nonsense. The Word speaks of much deeper things than our visions of or for the people. I am no better than the preachers who would use their pulpits to beat up on people over pet issues. So, recognizing my flaws, I plan ahead. When you have sat down months before and considered what the Word says, then you don’t know what you’re specifically going to be dealing with in the future. Therefore, your teaching is prepared with minimal bias.
  3. The plan is stress free! When you come into whatever sphere your teaching, it is wise to be prepared. When you have a regular place of teaching, it is best to be prepared extensively. Trust me, stress is minimized when you plan.
  4. The plan is more spiritual. Ok, now I am getting a little subjective, it’s fine to argue with me here. People will argue, albeit erroneously, that not preparing is somehow more an act of faith than planning out the work. As if the Lord prefers stressed out followers who fly by the seat of their pants over disciplined diligent workers. Planning out removes my own selfish desire to address current issues. It forces me to trust that the Lord will handle issues in His time and His way.  Further, if I have been diligent to plan ahead, I am free from an obsessive desire to control what He wants to say to the people.

Here is a brief outline of how to do this:

  1. Read the entire book you are intending to teach over and over, praying for guidance, making notes, and identifying passages that stand out.
  2. Outline that book and divide it into teachable sections.
  3. Pray and repeat steps 1 and 2
  4. Walk through the teachable sections one at a time making a basic outline of each.
  5. Pray and examine the first passage and work up a more extensive outline
  6. If you manuscript, complete your manuscript
  7. Praying through the message identify application.
  8. 2 weeks before teaching the text, set aside some time to go through the teaching and add in any necessary application you may have missed.
  9. The week of preaching, reserve time the last few days of your week to go over your teaching.

So, what do you think… feel free to push back in comments.

An Open Letter to My Former Students

Dear Student,

I want you to know I still pray for you. I think about you often and still love you deeply. My heart is heavy when I see your struggles on social media and I am overjoyed when I see your successes. I am privileged that I have not been cut out of your life and I want you to know I am grateful for that. I have watched you grow, and now I am watching you go. For some of you it is difficult to watch. I long to help you, to walk you through your intellectual struggles, to offer you counsel and books that may aid in your journey. For others I feel an overwhelming sense of pride and joy to watch you soar into maturity. For all of you, I pray.

I remember every step of your walk when you were in Youth Group. I remember the labor of trying to convince you that church was worth your time. I remember you ignoring me. I remember challenging your faith. I remember the joy of watching you grow. I remember that time you got angry at me for that same challenge and how you complained to everyone else about me because if it. I laugh about it now. In truth I laughed then too… knowing that it would turn out alright given time. I remember the times you got hurt, when I stayed up late praying that you’d be ok. I remember the deep sorrow I felt over your relationship, family, and heart issues. I remember you. I remember your walk. I don’t know you as well as I would like now, but I remember you. You’re not forgotten.

No church is ever perfect and, if we were wise, we made sure you knew that. We made ridiculous mistakes trying to do what was best for your growth and we are still making mistakes and growing from them.

I have a short exhortation for you:

Pursue the truth of Jesus Christ. Find community. Live a full life.

You’ve moved into spheres of the world that will encourage you to forget the truth. Do not blindly accept the wisdom of the professors and peers around you. Remember the difference between many of your professors and every other opinionated fool is how many words they wrote on a piece of paper. They’re people… just like everyone else, they are striving to figure out who they are and what they are here for. Challenge their assumptions as much as they challenge yours. There is one authority that has been tested and proved through time: God’s Word. Remember to test all things by Scripture. Of course, in order to test things by Scripture, you must know it! So read it, listen to it, and engage it. It is my hope that we taught you to deal with difficult texts as well as the favored stories. If we did this well, then you struggle to understand God. Remember, it is better to struggle than to be apathetic. God likes when you struggle with Him. It is what He named His people! (Israel means “Struggles with God”)

You were designed for community. Christianity is not a solo act. Find a group that thinks deeply and get involved! Dig in deeply to the lives of those around you and do it with a transparent attitude. Make sure people know you… I mean really know you. It might be uncomfortable; do it anyway. Pursue knowing Jesus alongside other people.

Finally, Live! Do things that are hard! Enjoy the things God has made. Follow the Word of God and engage the world around you with the mission of God. One of the greatest failings of the church is that we somehow communicated that you are not supposed to be alive. We inadvertently told you that you’re supposed to be bored and unhappy in this life. Sorry… it’s not true! You were created to enjoy life.  Happiness is yours for the having. Chase it!! Remember that you will only find it in and through a consistent and genuine relationship with Jesus. Live life within the construct of His love for you, and you will find tremendous joy!

Sincerely,

Your pastor