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Life

Heaven, a World of Love

Jonathan Edwards is often referred to as one of the greatest minds America has ever produced. He was a theologian and philosopher, yes. But most of all, he was pastor. His writing and and speaking and ministry did not happen in a classroom or an ivory tower. His sermons prove this.

He is most famous for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards didn’t only preach on God’s anger. Far from it. He talked more about God’s glory, the beauty of Christ, and love. One of the better Edwards’ sermons I have read is “Heaven, a World of Love.”

What comes to mind when you think of heaven? Harps? Clouds? Singing? Standing around doing nothing for eternity?

Does love make the cut? Have you ever considered that heaven is a world of love?

That’s Edwards’s main point. Heaven is the perfect society we were made for and long for, even if we don’t know it. Edwards makes several profound statements about what heaven will be like and they shatter our (pop)cultural expectations

In heaven, love casts away fear:

“No inhabitants of that blessed world will ever be grieved with the thought that they are slighted by those that they love, or that their love is not fully and fondly returned.”

In heaven, love is perfectly enjoyed:

“Heaven itself, the place of habitation, is a garden of pleasures, a heavenly paradise, fitted in all respects for an abode of heavenly love; a place where they may have sweet society and perfect enjoyment of each other’s love.”

In heaven, love is pure and genuine:

“Every expression of love shall come from the bottom of the heart, and all that is professed shall be really and truly felt.”

In heaven, love means everyone’s satisfaction will be in the holiness of others:

“Those that are highest in glory, are those that are highest in holiness, and therefore are those that are most beloved by all the saints; for they most love those that are most holy, and so they will all rejoice in their being the most happy. And it will not be a grief to any of the saints to see those that are higher than themselves in holiness and likeness to God, more loved also than themselves, for all shall have as much love as they desire, and as great manifestations of love as they can bear; and so all shall be fully satisfied; and where there is perfect satisfaction, there can be no reason for envy.”

While I am not an expert on Edwards, I can’t help but wonder if he is not at his pastoral best in this sermon. Why? Because the sermon creates a longing in the soul of the hearer (or reader in our case!) for heaven. Edwards shows us that the dissatisfactions and longings we feel in this world are little reminders that we were made for another one. A world of divine love!

But we do not long for heaven simply because it’s great real estate (i.e. not hell), but because it’s the only place where we can experience perfect relationship with God and others. I’m not very old and I have suffered little compared to most people. Yet with each passing month and year, I’m finding myself longing for heaven more and more.

What about you?

Categories
Life

A Sermon from a Sad Song

This is a sermon I preached last year from Psalm 88, the saddest song in the Bible.

Pray Your Tears (Psalm 88)
August 16, 2015

This is the sermon I think many of you have been waiting to hear. I say that because Psalm 88 is the dark, dingy, scary, unfinished basement of the Psalms. It’s the saddest song in the Bible, maybe in all the world. The psalmist is sad and begging for help. And God is silent. It’s the only Psalm that doesn’t end on a positive note.

And if you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have lived in Psalm 88.

The problem in this text is not merely sadness. The sadness is accentuated because God is quiet. So we are going to address both sadness and God’s silence today. And here’s what we’ll see: Sadness and God’s silence in sadness are gifts from God to drive us to God.

So I pray this sermon brings comfort because I think we do ourselves a disservice when we suppose that our sermons and songs should only be upbeat and happy and chipper. The reality is that in the room right now, there is sadness for all sorts of reasons. Lost loved ones, cancer, struggling marriages, divorce, wayward children, unemployment, financial struggles, being bullied at school, infertility, abuse from parents, etc. Some of us are sad because we have made sinful choices.

And the sadness deepens when God is quiet.

I’m not saying that our worship times together should only be sullen and droopy and morose. What I am saying is that we must learn to acknowledge our tears and pray them. Then we’re in a position to find a firm hope and joy in Jesus. And it’s this joy in Jesus in the midst of sorrow that should characterize us and will be light to a dark world.

So we are going to start by talking about the God of Sadness and Silence and then God’s design for sadness and his silence. We’ll close with 4 ways to pray this Psalm.

The God of Sadness and Silence
The psalmist is sad. It’s unclear why, but it’s deep and dark and feels like he’s on the precipice of hell. He feels like God has abandoned him. Listen to what he says in vv. 6-8 and 15-18a.

[6] You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
[7] Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
[8] You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape…

…[15] Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
[16] Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
[17] They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
[18] You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me…

The psalmist feels like his destiny is the destiny of the wicked. He will go to Sheol—the grave, and more, Abbadon—the place of destruction.

But what’s more is that God is silent in the midst of all this. Verse 14: “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” Verse 18b, “my companions have become darkness.”

It’s one thing to be sad but it’s another to be sad and feel alone.

Now this is not unique to Ps. 88. This happens over and over again throughout the Psalms and outside the Psalms. Think of Job. In Job 2 he says to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?” Then the author inserts this comment, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Then for 36 chapters, God is silent.

And like Job, the psalmist knows God is his salvation. That’s how he started his prayer (v. 1). It’s the only positive line in the prayer. So, his emotions of sadness and loneliness and despair do not correspond with reality. We know that God is good and we know that God hasn’t abandoned us. But it feels like he has. And sometimes he brings things upon us that are absolutely horrific. The situations are overwhelming. And he seems to delay when I cry to him. Why?

Have you ever been there? Have you ever had the guts to pray like this? C.S. Lewis felt this way. He was deeply acquainted with a Psalm 88-type experience. Listen to him:

[W]here is God? [You] 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?…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.’

We are confronted with a harsh reality: God may not want our best life now. He may, for a time—a long time—bring sadness into our lives and be silent in the midst of it. And in this moment we must ask: what kind of God do I believe in?

Now you might say, “I don’t like that kind of God. I don’t want the God Lewis describes.” But what does this expose about your heart? Do you want to be in control? Do you want to be your own god? Sadness and God’s silence are gifts because they force us to calibrate ourselves to how God has revealed himself so that we are not duped into believing in a God of our own making. We are not in control. In verse 7 the psalmist describes his pain exactly like that.

Listen to Quaker theologian Richard Foster: “For me the greatest value in my lack of control was the intimate and ultimate awareness that I could not manage God. God refused to jump when I said, ‘Jump!’ Neither by theological acumen nor by religious technique could I conquer God. God was, in fact, to conquer me.”

God is not playing games. He’s not like the malicious kid burning ants with a magnifying glass. He’s giving us a gift: we are experientially learning what he is like: sorrow and tears and suffering are part of the deal. Good parents are often silent so their children experience sorrow for a greater good. God is the best parent. It feels like punishment but it’s actually discipline. This is what God is really like.

What Sadness and God’s Silence Are Designed to Do
So what’s the purpose of God brining sadness into our lives and being silent in those times? Sadness and God’s silence are signals that God wants to do something something important. He wants to lovingly conquer us. He wants us to hunger for and hope in him.

It would have been easy for the psalmist to stop praying. But he prays. For 18 verses. Three times he says in different ways, “I cry to you” (vv. 1, 9, 13)

He’s not crying to anyone else. Being on the precipice of hell forces him to go to God. The cliché “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is true. Imagine the the time you were apart from a loved one, perhaps a fiancé or spouse. You hungered for them, didn’t you? Because you couldn’t see them, or perhaps call them, you wanted them all the more.

So sadness and silence are meant to create a longing in us for him. They’re not meant to drive us away. He’s doing something in us that could not be done any other way.

The psalmist is also arguing that God is a God of life, not death. When you read this psalm, the indignant cries about impending death and the grave and the pit and Sheol and Abaddon show that the only thing that will satisfy is resurrection. That’s his ultimate hope.

Listen to verses 10-12,

[10] Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
[11] Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
[12] Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

The Psalmist argues like one who knows God is the God of the living, not the dead, even if he doesn’t feel like it. Sadness and God’s silence are meant to look forward for rescue from death.

All this makes us ask ourselves several key questions: What am I hungering for? What do I hope in? Do I want God or health? God or a good marriage? God or children? God or money? God or a job? God or happiness? Do I want God more than I want to breathe?

Really, what this Psalm shows is that God is not interested in answering our unanswerable questions. And you can almost imagine the silent God looking at the Psalmist, like a tender parent, shaking his head, saying, “Just wait, honey. You’ll understand soon.” This psalm leaves us longing for God alone to be our help. In our darkest moments, answers won’t do. We want someone to embrace us.

When you think about your most tear-stained moments in life, you were probably most likely to trust someone ready to embrace and console you if they’ve been there—if they know what you are going through. I think we need that from God, too. And here’s what’s amazing: we should hunger for God and hope in God more than the psalmist because we know God has firsthand experience. What we come to find out is that God not only takes you through the wringer, but goes through the wringer himself…with you and for you. The psalmist never knew that about God.

God may not always give us answers. But he gives us himself, which is better than answers. In Jesus, God joins us in our tears. In Jesus, God overcomes death. Jesus was called the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. He experienced sadness to the extreme because he was a perfect man who lived in an imperfect world. Think about how sad that would be. He wept often. He was grieved often.

Then at the end of his life, his soul was full of troubles. He faced an unanswered prayer in the garden when he sweated blood. And on the cross, the Father really left Jesus. The Father’s wrath really swept over Jesus and destroyed him. What the psalmist felt—what you and I feel at times—Jesus actually endured. Jesus cried out, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”

Silence.

The Father really didn’t answer Jesus. Jesus is really the one singing this Psalm. He’s really the only one who can.

Yet we know that God eventually answered Jesus. but it took death and 3 days. Then he rose again. He was not abandoned to Sheol. He did not suffer corruption. He overcame the darkness. And when you are united to him by faith, you will share in his resurrection, too. God is not the God of the dead, but the living. Nothing—no One—else in the world can promise you this but Jesus.

Perhaps you are saying, “It’s nice to know that Jesus went through that. But how does it help?” Here’s how it helps. He’s saying to you in those moments, “I have been there. I’ve been to hell and back. When you feel God is silent, he’s not. My Father—your Father—is preparing you for resurrection.” And if that is your only hope, that is okay. There is nothing wrong with you. Sadness is normal. Even long-term sadness is normal. And it is a gift because it’s not just drawing you to God, it’s making you like Jesus. You share in his sufferings and his glory with him.

Let me tell you how our story ends: there will be a day when we share in Jesus’ resurrection and on that day, he will wipe every tear from our eyes. Carly and I like to tell our kids, “The sad things will come untrue.” And they will.

The Apostle Paul said we are “always sorrowful, yet rejoicing.” I wish there was another way to resurrection light than the dark depths of Psalm 88. But I don’t think there is. There wasn’t for Jesus. The hope is resurrection but Jesus says, “Deny yourself, carry you cross and follow me.” He’s calling us into the depths of sorrow. Only to experience a weight of glory far beyond all comparison.

How can we use this Psalm in prayer?
Now, what’s the place of Psalm 88 in our prayers? How do you actually use this Psalm? Here are four ways to use it whether God seems silent now or not.

  1. Use it to jump-start your prayers when God slams the door in your face.
    Remember that the psalmist keeps praying. Use this psalm as a template to describe your pain to God. And recall that God’s silence is what you feel, not what’s real. Jesus’ cross and his resurrection remind us of that.
  2. Use it to weep with those who weep.
    Both letters of Ephesians and Colossians tell believers to “speak in psalms…to one another.” Singing a psalm like this forces us to empathize with those who are sad and suffering. The truth is that if we aren’t suffering, we often look down on people who are. Knowing and singing and telling the psalms to others helps us empathize and identify with others.
  3. Use it to prepare yourself for suffering
    Suffering will come and you need to be ready for it. You need a vocabulary of faith that will help you know how to pray in that time. That great contemporary philosopher, Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games trilogy said, ”Sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” Psalm 88 can equip you for the day of sadness. In general, read psalms regularly so that you will know what to say no matter the emotion you feel.
  4. Use it to foster a vulnerable, supportive Christian community.
    If you are sad, to those outside the faith you will be a case to be solved. You will be labeled. But in front of Christ and his people, you are an image bearer who lives by grace. The only place where you are free to feel and pray sadness is in the church. Here we live as sorrowful yet rejoicing, believing that in the midst of sadness we have joy in Jesus and resurrection light will someday come.
Categories
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!

Categories
Ministry

3 Points and a Cloud of Dust

I’m fairly new to this whole preaching thing. Don’t get me wrong, I have preached and taught for several years–I served with Campus Crusade and as a pastoral intern at our last church. But I have not preached on a regular basis week-in and week-out for several years in a row. Even now in my new role at Grace Chapel, I’m not our primary Sunday preacher. This week, I will have preached four times. That’s nothing. I’ve heard it takes about preaching about 100 times to really feel like you are in a groove. Yikes.

Since I’m preaching this Sunday, I spent time today thinking through how to organize my sermon. Now, when it comes to sermon organization, there’s no shortage of opinion. Whether you are a preacher who preachers or the faithful member who listens each week, you probably have a preference of how a message should be structured. On second thought, I should not say “everyone” has an opinion. After my first sermon, a man in our church, named Joe, said that his wife particularly enjoyed my message. He said, “She was so happy that you were well organized! She told me, ‘It was great! He had three points!’ She said she followed along easily. I said to her, ‘Three points? I didn’t notice no three points.’ But, you know, she’s an English teacher, and I coach wrestling.” Obviously, Joe does not have an opinion about sermon structure!

Yet, whether people realize it or not, the way a pastor structures his message is of utmost importance. Good structure may not always help a sermon (content may be bad, may lack passion, etc.), but it will never hurt a sermon. My structured helped Joe, even though he didn’t notice.

I’m still trying to find my own particularly way of structuring messages, and while no message should be structured the exact same way, I’m learning how to keep my messages simple, and, yes, tethered together by points. I realize that some passages, particularly narratives, may not lend themselves to this approach, but in general, I’m more convinced of “point preaching” as I learn to preach and as I talk to the people who actually listen to the sermons. Call it three–or two or four or twelve–points and a cloud of dust, if you want. It may sound boring and cliche, but when a sermon is road-mapped with points, people can track easily. And when people track easily, they are much more likely to be helped by what the preacher says.

WIth that in mind, here’s two personal reasons, as a preacher, why I lean toward using points and two things to keep in mind when preaching with points (you see what I did there?):

  • Why #1: Preaching with points helps me make sure I know what I’m going to say and then forces me to say it. Preaching with points focuses my attention more narrowly. I am less likely to go on tangents and just blabber if I have points that I want to make sure to communicate.
  • Why #2: Preaching with points can help draw out the heart in a passage. I am more likely to sound like a running commentary if I just “move through” the text verse-by-verse.
  • Keep in mind #1: Let the text determine your points’ substance and the number of your points. The Scripture text drives the way a sermon is structured. Do not force the text into your structure, or else you have undermined the whole point of faithfully preaching the word of God.
  • Keep in mind #2: If you use points, make sure to make them clear to your hearers. One of the reasons (not the main one!) people forget what they hear in sermons is due to the fact that they do not participate in any other activity like it in our culture. Don’t burden your audience. Be helpful by clearly telling and reminding them what you want them to hear.

This isn’t the only way to do it. You can certainly do all of these with narrative preaching–I just find it harder for myself (go ahead and call me a Westerner, I can take it).

What’s most helpful for you when it comes to structure as you preach or as you listen to sermons?

Categories
Ministry

Stand On Your Head for Joy!

I get the privilege of preaching God’s word to our congregation every so often, about once per month. When I preach, I will do my best to post a snippet from my manuscript (it will not always be exactly what I say!) here on the blog with a link to the full audio. In my first two weeks at Grace Chapel, I preached twice. Here’s a portion of my first sermon, “A Father and Two Sons” from Luke 15:11-32.

So Jesus leaves the story open-ended. What will the elder brother do? He ends it there to leave the Pharisees and us longing something—for a true and better elder brother. An elder brother who would leave the presence of his Father and the comforts of his home in heaven to go on a rescue mission and sacrifice all he has to bring his Father’s lost children home. You see, Jesus is the elder brother we need and long for. He gave up his heavenly inheritance and paid our debt. He was stripped of his heavenly clothes, hung naked on a cross, and died thirsty, so we would be clothed in the best robe and enjoy a feast fit for a king. And God is the real prodigal in this story. He is the one who is radical, extravagant, seemingly wasteful in his generosity.

So now younger brothers and elder brothers can relate to God through grace. It’s a gift. We receive it by faith. No one is too bad to receive it and no one is good enough to earn it. Jesus is directing us to himself. He’s saying, you don’t have what takes. You need to trust in a God who is recklessly generous. A God who is wastefully extravagant. A God who shatters your categories of sin and righteousness. And the only way to get to him is through his Son, who provides both the perfect obedience and payment for sin we need.

Some of you might be saying right now, “Okay, I’m already a Christian. I get it. I’ve already received grace. What am I supposed to do?”  Well, Jesus doesn’t say, “Go and do likewise.” He is directing us to himself. So if that is your reaction, let me humbly suggest that you guard your heart from a spirit of legalism: be astonished by grace! Second, let me ask you to consider: if this is your attitude, have you encountered grace in the first place? This grace should astonish you and fuel your faith!

Martin Luther once said, “If I could believe God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy!” If you want an application, maybe try that as one this morning!

Listen to the whole thing.