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Life

A Sermon for Election Day

I wrestle with posting my sermon manuscripts. Why? First of all, often I don’t preach from a manuscript but only an outline or an expanded outline that might just look like scrap notes to others. So often I don’t have one.

There is a deeper reason, however. Sermons are not written communication, but oral. Sermons are meant to be heard with the ears, received with the mind, and chewed on with the heart. In the moment.

Because sermons are oral communication, what I preached yesterday to our congregation, while not dramatically different from my prepared script, is noticeably different. Some things were cut because of time. Some things were not said because I was looking at people’s faces and not my paper. Some things were added because of the looks I saw on people’s faces and I realized they needed something more, or different, than what I had prepared. You could say preaching is oral communication that lives.

When we read a sermon we find online, we are often looking to learn something. An oral communication like a sermon, while certainly helping people to learn things, is primarily meant to move people to worship Someone. Books and blogs can reproduce the content of a sermon, but they cannot reproduce the power of God to draw people to Jesus. It is a gift from God that, in a singular point in time, he moves through human proclamation of his word—whether preached to five people, a hundred, or ten-thousand. Sometimes you can tell he moves and other times you can’t. Most preachers never see or know the impact of their preaching.

Enough. That’s my rant on posting sermon manuscripts. And still, I decided today to post one. Here is my sermon manuscript yesterday from Psalm 2. Though it’s only in written form, I pray it not only edifies your mind but moves you to worship Messiah and take refuge in him.

The Rage of the Nations and the Reign of Messiah
Psalm 2

In two days we will end the most divisive and angry election season we have ever had in this country. You could say we have been witnessing a political circus for the past 9 months or so. But that’s just the surface. What is happening underneath is plotting and scheming of individuals and a nation to be free from all God-interference. We are witnessing a spiritual version of the game “king of the hill.” People and parties are clamoring for first place and God will have none of it.

Listen to Eugene Peterson:

A lot of people reject the word of God; they not only reject it, they turn their rejection into a world power. These people command most of the armies of the world, direct the advances of science, run school systems, preside over governments, and rule in the marketplaces…we [need] an act of imagination that enables us to see that the world of God is large—far larger than the worlds of kings and princes, prime ministers and presidents, far larger than the worlds reported by newspaper and TV.

We need something to enable us to see that our presidential election is not the most important thing. In every election there is the temptation to shrink our world down to the size of our world. Elections are like footnotes. Important, but not the whole story, and we need to remember that.

What will answer our need? Thankfully, God’s world is much bigger and he invites us into it. He answers our need in Messiah—Jesus Messiah.

Psalm 2 helps restore perspective in the midst of an anxious and divisive election. It opens our eyes to a big world, a grand world, where God and his Messiah reign. Let’s read Psalm 2 together.

Two Levels of this Psalm
There’s two levels to this psalm—and every psalm. The first is on the historical level. The background for this psalm is God’s covenant with David. It would be through David’s family that God would establish a royal line who would represent his rule on the earth. The throne would be in Zion—which is another name for Jerusalem. And like today, back then kings had rivals who would do all they could to scheme and plot to take over land and people and industry. God established his king in Zion and the other nations didn’t like this. They hate the king. They hate God. Psalm 2 is a song God’s people sang to remind themselves who their true king is and to declare to the nations that their efforts to subvert the king would be futile. That’s level one.

The second level stretches across redemptive history. As you read this psalm, it become obvious that the king mentioned is no mere human. Some of things said of him could not be true of David. He died after all, and so did all who came after him. But we know that many times the New Testament authors and Jesus himself would quote the Psalms—even this one—and apply it to Jesus. In fact, the word for “Anointed” in v. 2 is mashiach—Messiah. Do you know the Greek word for Messiah? Christos, Christ in English. Let’s look at one place that uses Psalm 2: Acts 4. The believers are praying.

[24] “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, [25] who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? [26] The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

[27] for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, [28] to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

The peoples of the world have always plotted against God and his Anointed ones and the apostles saw that this comes to climax in the plot against Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate King. He is the greater David. And when it’s all said and done, there will only be one King of the hill. And our response must be to take our refuge in Messiah. Let’s turn to Psalm 2 and explore what God has to say to us.

We are going to ask three questions of this text today: Why do the nations rage? How will God respond? Where will you seek refuge?

Why do the nations rage?
These opponents are both numerous (nations and peoples) and prestigious (kings and rulers). Most of the people in the world, and most of the important people, don’t want God to reign over them. Here’s what they’re saying about God and his Messiah, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us” (v. 3). If you are a Christian, you see God’s word and his rule as freedom from sin, but the world sees it as shackles. They want to be king of the hill and they will not rest until they have sovereignty. That’s why they are raging. That’s why there are conventions, campaigns, debates, and elections, summits, espionage, and wars. It’s one big global game of king of the hill.

To be included in this raging, you don’t have to marshall a crusade against God. In David’s day, some of the kings who opposed him did not even know Yahweh by name. So this quote in v. 3 isn’t something any king said specifically. This is poetry and in poetry there is license to generalize and describe a mood or tone or feeling. Verse 3 simply gives words to the general disposition of all who are not on God’s side.

All you have to do to fulfill Psalm 2 is speak or live in a way that rejects Jesus’ right to reign over you. You don’t have to speak ill of him by name, write a nasty blog about him, be a criminal, or curse his followers. If you do not submit to the authority of Messiah Jesus—whether you are an elected official or not, whether you speak the words or not—you make war on God.

Now, most people don’t do this consciously or even maliciously. Nobody, candidate or otherwise, wakes up saying, “I wonder how I can subvert the reign of Messiah in my life and in this country today.” Of course they don’t say that. They want you to vote for them! No one talks that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

These first three verses expose why our nation is the way it is. Why our world is the way it is. The United States and our political candidates are not immune to the raging. Now you might object and think I’m saying throw the whole political baby out with the election bathwater.

No. Government is a good thing ordained by God—please hear me on that. By God’s grace, this country has created the most ingenious system of government the world has ever seen. So, you should vote. You should love you country. You should care about your country. You should pray for your leaders.

But there is a dark side and I do not want you to be fooled. I love this country but it is not ultimate. To care about your country and this election on one hand and see it for what it really is on the other are not mutually exclusive. You can do both. 

Now, we must ask: what’s God’s response to all this?

How will God respond?
Earlier I said that the problem with elections is that the often shrink our world to the size of our world. The raging of the nations and their leaders tempt us to believe that this is all there is. The thing about Psalm 2 is that it doesn’t leave us in a shrunken world. It opens up to us a big world. A grand world. A God-sized world, much bigger than any nation or ruler can imagine. Psalm 2 expands our vision into the world of Messiah.

Messiah is God’s person in history. Messiah is the person God will use to usher in his kingdom. It began with David and would conclude with the grater David, Jesus.

Look at God’s response in verse 4: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” Derision means mocking. The NIV says, “The LORD scoffs at them.”

You can take the arrogance of politicians too seriously. God laughs at their pretense and calls it silliness. Everyone is try to be him! Can you imagine?! Do you join him in the laughter? Have you gotten to the place in this election season that you can laugh? Laughter restores perspective. It’s not a laughter like, “haha, I’m better than you!” Not at all. It’s more like the kind of laughter when you play king of the hill with your 14-month old and he thinks he can take you out.

God’s laughter then moves to mocking, scoffing. And then to wrath. “As for me,” God says, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” God’s response to the human game of king of the hill is to install his own King. King Jesus.

While we are consumed with our politics, something bigger is going on. There’s a more expansive kingdom and a more powerful king exercising his authority in the world. You can’t see it but it’s real.

How is Jesus installed as King? Unlike the leaders of the world, Jesus showed his authority by giving it up and dying on a cross. He is raised up…but as a sacrifice! And by believing in that sacrifice for your sins, you come under his reign. But if that’s the only image of Messiah you have, you have a truncated view. Look at vv. 7-9. This is a very interesting moment when messiah actually speaks–originally the Davidic king, and now Jesus:

“I will tell of the decree: the LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

It is through Jesus’ death that the nations become his, but there’s more. God’s response to the raging of the nations is to wipe them out. Break them. Dash them. He didn’t do it then. He didn’t do it the first time Jesus came. He’s not doing it now. He’s patient. But in the end, there will only be one kingdom.

Revelation picks up on this image. Listen to Revelation 19:15-16:

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

These images are obviously figurative—but the point is made. Jesus will take vengeance on those who reject him, particularly the nations. Does it make you tremble to think that in the end all nations, even our own nation—which we rightly love and care about—will be wiped out by Jesus? Does it take your breath away that all the leaders in the history of the world will give an account to Jesus on the last day?

Countries and elections matter. They just aren’t ultimate. And they will come to an end. Right now, God is patient with the raging and plotting. He even restrains evil so that most human governments actually do people good. But his patience will come to an end and that leads to our last question.

Where Will You Seek Refuge?
Verses 10-11 transition into the application: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear; rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.”

The kings of the earth also need a king. The only thing that will keep them from rejecting Messiah is to worship him. Kiss the Son. Recognize your unworthiness and how worthy he is.

Now, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a president who knew Jesus is king? It would be splendid. But friends, we must remember that it is hard for politicians who kiss the Son to be elected by millions of people who refuse to do so. And It is hard to kiss the Son when you have some measure of power over people. Most leaders in human history have not obeyed these words. That’s why the warning is here.

What happens if they don’t heed the warning? God will be angry with them and they will perish because, it says, his wrath is quickly kindled. Now, you might ask, “Isn’t God slow to anger?” He is. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. But God’s slowness to anger does not mean he never gets angry. He has a long wick, but he does have a wick, and it does burn. And eventually, his patience wears out. And when the wick is done burning, he will not delay.

In some ways, this Psalm is a harsh, terrifying psalm. But it ends incredibly positive. Let’s not miss it. The last line expands the warning but turns it into a benediction: “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (v. 12).

There are two ways we can respond. Seek refuge from God or in God.

Which will you chose? Will you find refuge in men and women or in Messiah? The rulers of this world see refuge in Messiah as bondage, shackles. They are trying to break free. But when you find your refuge in Jesus you have security and true happiness, true rest from all the raging and plotting and silliness. And the truth is that there is truly no refuge from Messiah. Only in him.

Finally, here’s how you can know if you seek refuge in Messiah.

You will be able to participate in our political process without despair because you know the present world is passing away and that in the end, there will be only one King and one Kingdom.

And on Tuesday night, no matter what happens…

  • you will pursue your joy in Jesus.
  • you will be humble if your candidate wins and respectful if your candidate loses.
  • you’ll be able to pray for your new president and not argue with people on social media.

No matter what happens in the future because of this election, you will have a sense of rest and peace in Messiah because you will have believed God’s word, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

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Life

Discipleship is All About Jesus

Yesterday in my sermon on Colossians 2:6-7 (link coming soon!), I said that this short text from Paul is his view of discipleship in a nutshell. Paul tells us what discipleship is all about when he says that we are to “walk in [Jesus], having been rooted in him and now being built up in him” (literal translation). He writes to the Colossians because false teachers were saying they had to believe that receiving Jesus was an okay start, but once you get going in Christianity, you need something else. More than likely, the Colossians were tempted to go back to practicing Judaism.

Paul wants the Colossians—and us—to know that Christ, not anything else, is supreme. You started with Jesus. You go on with Jesus. You end with Jesus. This means that as disciples, our goal should be that Christ become progressively more and more supreme in all of life to us. Discipleship is not about being built up on theology, spiritual disciplines, morality, traditions, church programs, or anything else. It is a life being built on Jesus for his glory. Discipleship is all about Jesus.

This means that we live the Christian life the same way we started: repentance and faith in Jesus (cf. Mark 1:15). That’s our rhythm. We continually turn from counterfeit glories back to Jesus, our true glory. We don’t become Christians by trusting in Jesus and then move on to something else, as if it were more advanced. No, instead Christ and his gospel are always progressively becoming more and more  beautiful, glorious, delightful, and, therefore, “real” to us.

At one point in the sermon, I mentioned a (literal) illustration that might be helpful. It’s sometimes called “The Gospel Grid” or “The Cross Chart” depending on who you talk to. Here it is:

crosschart

When we become Christians, we don’t know very much. We don’t know very much about our sin and rebellion. We didn’t truly understand what it cost God to save us (the death of his only Son). We just knew that Jesus did die for us and we were captivated by him. At some point, we may be tempted, like the Colossians, to go on to something else. This chart is a visual reminder that “being built up in him” means that Jesus and his work on the cross should become “bigger” to us. That is, we should increasingly see what it cost the Supreme One to redeem sinners. As the chart shows, over time, disciples grow in their awareness of God’s holiness and of their sinfulness. As we mature, the cross seems bigger not because we sin more or worse (hopefully not, at least!). But because, unlike our physical eyes which worsen with age, our spiritual eyes have better vision than months, years, or decades ago. God’s grace in the gospel increasingly becomes sweeter and more amazing than we previously thought.

This reality is in Ephesians, too. Paul prayed that this church would have the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened to see the depths of gospel grace (Eph. 1:18-20) and that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17). These are prayers for Christians! What did he mean by praying this? He meant that he wanted Christ to be more real to them in their everyday experience. He wanted them to revel in Christ’s supremacy and work in the gospel. He wanted them to delight in the God who gave it all up for them. He wanted Christ’s glory and beauty to melt their hearts so that counterfeit glories would be rejected. He wanted their discipleship—their Christian life—to be a continual cycle of getting to know Jesus better and becoming more like him.

When Jesus becomes “bigger” or “more real” to us things change. We start to point people to him, not ourselves and our traditions, preferences, programs, models, etc. We start to sacrifice our comfort, time, resources, and energy for others knowing that the Supreme One gave it all up for me.

And most importantly, as I said in the sermon yesterday, we become humble, grateful people. Paul calls for us to “abound in thanksgiving” (v. 7b). When you are captivated by grace, you become thankful. Why? Because you can’t take credit. God has given you a gift. When the gospel of grace is big to us, thanksgiving is big, as well.

So let’s not be tempted to move on to something else. Nothing is more advanced than Jesus and the grace he gives because of the gospel. He is supreme and our discipleship is all about him.

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Life

“So this is what God’s really like.”

This summer, I’m preaching a very short sermon series from the Psalms on praying your emotions. Last week, I preached on Psalm 3, “Pray Your Fears.” In two Sundays, I’ll be preaching from the darkest Psalm, chapter 88, “Pray Your Sadness.”

I’m re-reading parts of a few books as research for the sermon. One book I turned to was C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. It is a tremendous little book about his journey after losing his wife Helen. When I read it the first time, I remember thinking that the book was one of the most raw, honest, yet refreshing books I had read. Essentially, A Grief Observed is the tear-stained pages of Lewis’ journal. I’m thankful his most delicate emotions were put on paper and published.

Listen to this devastating and liberating quote from Lewis in the very first chapter of his book:

[W]here is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

I tried to put some of these thoughts to C. this afternoon. He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand?

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there is no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’

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Life Ministry

What Eugene Peterson Wants to Hear In a Sermon

“If the pastor is mostly talking about what I’m supposed to be doing I quit listening.”

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Ministry

Preacher: Be Clear and Concise!

bible-podium

What makes for a good sermon? Sound exegesis? An understanding of passage’s place in redemptive history? Quality application? These are necessary, of course. But you can have these things and still be a terrible preacher because your communication is incoherent and your organization sloppy.

The art of communicating the sermon—homiletics—is just as vital as focusing on exegesis and theology. As I try to hone my preaching, I’m working on two simple homiletical elements: being clear and concise.

Clarity
First, ensure you are being clear. Have you ever heard a preacher begin a sermon by meandering for ten or even twenty minutes in an attempt to set up a tension (or try to be “relevant”)? The problem with this is that a congregation want to know why they should listen. Tell them–very often in the first sentence of the sermon! This is simple a big idea, a “thesis” that makes it clear to the congregation that this sermon has one main point. The thesis is clear and memorable. It’s a simple, one-sentence summary of the message.

A second aspect to being clear in preaching is to lay a road map for where the sermon is going. Good preachers build a framework for what’s coming. This may or may not mean having points in the sermon, but it at least means presenting the passage logically. Preaching is not a magic act that’s designed to surprise people. That’s entertainment, not preaching. Providing a road map will only help the congregation’s attentiveness and retention.

Conciseness
A second homiletical skill to sharpen is being concise. You want to preach for an hour. So do I. But if we want to go long, we need to master short. Why? It’s much more difficult to say something meaningful in a short amount of time. Therefore, this makes me more selective in my preparation with what I want to bring out of a text. It also makes me more selective with my words during the act of preaching. Being concise makes words matter more, not less, even though you will use fewer words.

While it may seem very short, I’m working on getting my sermons down to 25 minutes. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s so short! My introductions are ten minutes!” (That’s the problem—let the reader understand!) Twenty-five or thirty minutes, however, isn’t so short when my intro is my thesis statement, a few other sentences to build a tension, and then a roadmap of where I’m going (90 seconds tops!). This will be liberating for you, and it will help you practice not saying everything about everything in every sermon. Remember, master short before long means you will not always preach for 25 minutes. It means you will master 25 minutes and then incrementally speak longer. If I am not faithful with a few minutes, how will I be faithful with many?

These things do not make for fool-proof sermons. There will always be some people who reject God’s word and fail to believe and obey as God calls them to no matter how well a sermon is delivered. Homiletics do not change hearts. God does. It is the word of the cross, not human eloquence, that has power.

Nevertheless, this truth is not a free pass to slouch in our communication. Preacher, do everything you can by God’s grace to hone your craft in order to remove unnecessary obstacles to someone hearing and believing the gospel! The point is not slick communication in order to impress. The point is to be helpful to your hearers. So, for your hearers’ sake, be clear and concise!