Being Teachable as Hopeful, Joyful Disciples (Psalm 25)

God gave us a mind and He intended for us to use our minds to mine out the truths of Scripture. God intends for us to not only be and live as believers but to think Christianly. In all that we do, we do so with our hearts as well as our minds. We are called to love God with our heart, soul, minds, and strength.

Sunday Sermon: “Let Freedom Ring! What Biblical Freedom Really Means” (John 8:31-38)

Good morning on this Sunday, July 4th–a day we call Independence Day. Other words we use for “independence” are words like liberty and, yes, freedom. These tenets help lay the foundation for the philosophy and even the mission of our country.

That word “freedom” has a lot of connotations. Os Guinness  in his book Last Call for Liberty, noted:

America means freedom, and Americans are sure of that, but what does freedom mean? Americans are not so sure about that, and many of their fights are over different ideas of freedom.

Let’s take a brief stroll through our history.

  • During colonial times (that is, the 1700s leading up to and after this country achieved her independence from Britain), freedom was from the tyranny of England and King George III. So this was both a political and religious freedom since in England, the reigning monarch was also the head of the national church.
  • Leading up to the Civil War, freedom referred to two primary avenues. One was from the abolitionist movement of Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison to secure freedom for the slaves who were located primarily in the South. The other were from the politicos and plantation owners in the South who wanted freedom in the form of states rights in order to govern their own states freely from government coercion–which, according to the Confederate States of America constitution, included the maintaining of slavery to help bolster their economy of King Cotton (Article 4, Section 3). Lincoln’s vision, as spoken of in the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 spoke of a “new birth of freedom.”
  • In the 20th century, the desire was to spread the mission across the world, making the world “safe for democracy” which would give people the ability to hold elections and have a voice–tough when in the South they were denying blacks the right to vote until 1965.
  • FDR spoke of four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
  • Freedom for today? Here, I rely on Os Guinness his book “Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Biggest Threat.” He differentiates a 1776 freedom over and against a 1789 freedom. A 1776 freedom is that codified in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” See how this freedom is connected to a quasi-religious Supreme Being? We can see some overlap in understanding that God created us as imagebearers with their own freedom to pursue what they wanted in life. The 1789 freedom coincides with the French Revolution (Bastille Day, July 14, 1789), being untied to the Pope and any religious tethering, with a freedom that is more humanistic and entirely secular.

Freedom has a lot of connotations when it comes to our history. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Yet there is a freedom that needs clarifying even more, and that’s the freedom that Christ provides.

Preaching: Entertainers vs Equippers–An Important Choice To Make

Each Sunday morning, I take my prepared sermon to the pulpit, numerous pairs of eyes looking back at me. Some look with anticipation, Bibles open and pen in hand ready to capture truths from God’s Word. Others approach this time with a different “look,” more of a spectator: no Bible open, no pen in hand, and (from my vantage point) no interest in what is about to transpire. Still, others get a head start on a good, comfortable nap. 

How does a preacher of the Word approach these times? That’s the mystery. 

While some preachers take to the pulpit with a performance mentality, many preachers and pastors sense God’s call in a life-shaking and life-changing manner. I served as Worship and Youth Pastor at First Baptist Church of Clewiston, Florida when, in July 1999 on a missions trip to Mobile, Alabama with my student ministry, I sensed the overpowering call of God to preach. (It was so overwhelming, I could go back to the University of Mobile’s campus and take you to the spot. I was reading “The Servant Principle” by Rick Ferguson when God spoke in a way that was louder than words.)

Twenty-two years later, that call still resounds and has kept me through all the highs and lows ministry brings. That call was to preach the gospel as a pastor of a local church. When I prepare and preach, I preach as if I am serving the Most High and serving as an undershepherd. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2).

While the preaching event on Sunday mornings is not all that happens with one’s pastoral call, I believe it is the most critical. Granted, many dispute this conviction. A few years ago, I received a mailer that said, “If you believe preaching is the most important part of your ministry, you’re doing it wrong.” The point was that more happens in a church than that hour on Sunday morning and that ministries should focus on Monday through Saturday, not just Sunday. 

While I believe no one disputes the necessity of helping Christians be, well, Christian Monday through Saturday as well, the preaching of the Word is a mysterious calling with a mysterious effect that doesn’t always fall into the formulas of success we contrive.  The Word, accompanied by prayer and moved along by the Spirit, is the method God uses for change–and God works in those ways even if the “look” of our congregations indicates otherwise.

Seeing a congregant with Bible open and pen in hand on the surface looks as if they are the most engaged for the preacher. Those who have their eyes closed (hopefully they are praying) are the least ideal because they look as if they are the least engaged. The spectator (watching, no Bible, no pen) is the interesting one for me. Martyn Lloyd-Jones always struggled when he saw someone taking notes while he preached. He felt that the time they disengaged from the sermon to write down what he said made it more difficult for them to re-engage with the sermon. He wanted “impressions” that he prayed the Spirit would use.

In a conversation with someone a few years ago who preferred audible engagement with the sermon and grew frustrated with others who didn’t share her penchant for praise, I assured her that some outwardly praise while others inwardly process, but they still engage.

The mystery of preaching is not a mystery–”Preach the Word,” “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), etc. The mystery for the preacher is, How can they tell if their word is heard? We can’t–not always. We plant and /or water–God grows, and that harvest might not come for decades, but we trust. 

Boxes with microwaveable meals often say, “Cook on high for five minutes, let cool for one minute, then serve.” Sermons aren’t like that: “Cook on high for thirty minutes, let cool with a five-minute, six-verse invitation of Just As I Am, then save.” 

We pray, prepare, preach, pray some more, then love, serve, lead–all from the Word, all in the name of Jesus, all the while knowing that He is with us always, even to the end of the age. Go and make those disciples, folks!

Why Do Christians Struggle with Change?

Evangelical Christianity laments the direction of the culture, especially among the younger generations. They do so because this generation (and all generations) struggle with authority. The resistance exists in listening to the previous generations. They roll their eyes and want affirmation of how they already are and rebuff any suggestion for life adjustments and change. The only change many accept, they say, is that which benefits their self-interests.

Sadly, this is all hyperbole (obviously not everyone in those aforementioned generations is like this) but also reveals a blindspot.

Many churches have perfected this mindset long before this present culture took center stage.

I preached on Acts 16:11-15 yesterday. Before I go any further, let me put this passage before us:

So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day, we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16:11-15 ESV).

Lydia was already a worshiper of God, meaning she was a Gentile worshiping in the Jewish manner and rite. Looking back, we can see that God prepared Lydia to receive the promises made in the Old Testament fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. She could have said, “I am already a worshiper of God, so do not ask me to change my affiliation.”

I talk to younger pastors frequently (some of them were in my youth group I led back in the mists of time) who go into churches who greet them with enthusiasm about the future. It is entirely understandable. Pastors come in with what is known on a resume and in interviews. They fill in the unknown gaps by the experiences and desires of the voting congregation.

So, when the proverbial honeymoon period is over, disappointments set in. The incoming pastors do not fulfill those personal (and unspoken) expectations. Unless a recognition on behalf of the incoming pastor and the congregation happens regarding these blindspots and unrealistic expectations, challenging times will arise. Trust erodes, frustrations mount, fractures expand, and relationships end. Pastors and churches move forward with hurt and experiences that fuel future encounters.

We all struggle with one perceived need: affirmation. We all want to be loved as we are without question. Everyone wants and needs friends who care for us unconditionally–something quite rare in this age. Yet, the level of this affirmation for the Christian does not stay on the level of, “You are great just the way you are. Be true to yourself and do not change for anyone or anything.” On the contrary, God affirms us as image-bearers of God and followers of Jesus who want to be more like Christ and are ready to deny self. In Mark 8:34-38, Jesus tells His disciples:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

We must lose our life for the sake of Christ and the gospel if we want to keep our life. The world may affirm us, but Christ will reject us.

So here are some questions to think on:

  • Do pastors pastor for affirmation from their congregation?
  • Do congregants expect complete and total affirmation from their Bible reading, prayer time, or worship services?
  • Can we handle being told that we do not measure up but that we need to grow into the measure of Christ (Eph 4:13)?
  • Is the reason we want to please people is because we want people pleased with us?

We must realize that the only point where we arrive is when we arrive in glory. Our affirmation comes based on our identity, relationship, and rescue grounded in the person and work of Christ. Everything He works in your life is to build up. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, notice what His Word does:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Scripture teaches content, shows where we have strayed, shows how to repent (not just in emotional sorrow but in action), and what lessons we learned from these experiences so we may train others. A call for change in the believer’s hearts and minds is not a denial of God’s affirmation but an embracing of this. God loves you as you are, but He also loves you enough not to leave you the way you are.

Christ calls us to holiness, not merely good-enough-ed-ness. We no longer want self-affirmation or neighborly affirmation, but God’s affirmation.