A few days ago, Jared Saltz posted a link to a monologue by newscaster Chris Hayes. In the monologue, Hayes called out his bosses at NBC for failing to support Ronan Farrow’s investigation of Harvey Weinstein because Weinstein was powerful and had many friends. It’s easy to “take a stand” when doing so will cost you nothing. It’s hard to do so when you know there’s a price tag attached.
This is every bit as much an issue for preachers as it is for journalists. There is a temptation to rail on from the pulpit about the abuses of X denomination, or about Y sin that no one in attendance practices. However, when it comes to the spiritual problems that you know the brethren actually have, you’re silent about those.
Preaching like that is extremely popular. All of us love to hear about the things we’re doing right and somebody else is doing wrong. However, it probably makes the preacher in question a false prophet, even if he’s only lying by omission.
By contrast, addressing problems in the congregation have is a fraught exercise. People who believe that you are "preaching at them", whether correctly or not, are likely to get mad at you about it. Indeed, if they are powerful enough, you might find yourself looking for someplace else to preach! The example of David in 2 Samuel 12 is easy for Christians to praise but difficult to emulate. It's much easier for brethren to walk the path of Ahab in 1 Kings 18, and preachers know it.
It might seem, then, like the right answer for preachers is to burn their bridges every three years and move on, but I don't think that's necessarily correct either. Yes, preachers are called to proclaim, but we also are called to persuade. Preachers who focus on proclamation at the expense of persuasion are speaking truth, but they may well be missing out on speaking truth in love. That doesn't glorify God either, and it is likely to intensify the preacher's usual struggles with cynicism and self-righteousness.
Perhaps we can define the work of the preacher with the congregation as earning the right to speak hard truths. As much as I grind my teeth at the progressive rhetoric of "safe spaces", it is nonetheless true that people won't listen unless they feel safe. They have to believe that you are convinced of their value before they will hear a critique of their behavior from you. You aren't the one who gets to decide whether you are speaking the truth in love. They are.
Among the preachers whom I most admire are those who have worked for decades with the same congregation. Such longevity is nearly always proof of getting the truth-in-love balance right. A church deprived of the truth for a long time will dissolve or apostatize. A church exposed to loveless truth will run off the proclaimer. It’s not surprising, then, that these long-time preachers nearly always end up serving as elders too, revealing a knack for navigating relationships both in their families and in the congregation.
Sometimes preachers are faced with Pilate’s-hall moments, in which either they boldly proclaim the truth or they do not, and they suffer the consequences either way. May such men choose to honor Christ, whatever the cost! May we also be wise, though, in preparing the way for the gospel, in serving our brethren with selfless love. That way, when the time comes for us to preach hard truths, they will accept them rather than rejecting both them and us.
Several months ago, I preached on the passing of the miraculous spiritual gifts. After services, Jeff Nicholson and I had an interesting conversation about the gift of prophecy, and he suggested that it might be worth devoting a sermon to explaining what those miraculous gifts were.
After rolling that around in my mind for a while, I decided that Jeff was right. Often, we don’t study this because we don’t have any of those gifts today, but I think that’s a mistake. Let me explain. Usually, when we encounter somebody who believes the miraculous gifts still continue, we address their confusion by going to 1 Corinthians 13 and explaining that the gifts faded with the completion of the written word.
However, I think there’s yet another way to handle the issue. Typically, these people have had experiences that they say are miraculous. However, when we compare their experiences to the Scriptural record, their “miracles” invariably don’t measure up. In order to make that argument, though, we have to know what the gifts actually did. With this in mind, let’s spend our evening considering the first-century gifts.
The first gift that I want to look at is the gift of TONGUES. We see the apostles employing this gift in Acts 2:5-6. It’s clear here that the apostles aren’t speaking in a prayer language or in the language of angels. They are speaking in the foreign languages that these visitors to Jerusalem knew. That’s what the gift of tongues did: it gave people the ability to speak foreign languages they had not learned. This gives us a test that we can use with those who claim to have the gift of tongues today. People who can’t miraculously speak in foreign languages don’t have the gift of tongues.
Next, we logically come to the gift of INTERPRETATION OF TONGUES. I think the text that gives us the best insight into this one is 1 Corinthians 14:10-13. Notice first of all that Paul is talking about “languages in the world”. It’s clear that he connects the gift of tongues to speaking foreign languages. However, his words also highlight a weakness of the gift of tongues. I can be jabbering away at y’all all day long in Russian, but unless somebody can speak or understand Russian, my miraculous gift of tongues is pointless. That’s where the gift of interpretation came in. It allowed either the speaker or an audience member to miraculously understand and translate foreign languages.
Third, let’s consider PROPHECY. This is a unique gift because it appears to have not one but two main manifestations. We see the first in Acts 11:27-28. Here, Agabus uses his gift of prophecy to predict the future. Let’s notice three things about this prediction. First, it was specific. Second, it was falsifiable. Third, it was fulfilled. These specific, falsifiable, and fulfilled predictions are characteristic of the true gift of prophecy. By contrast, the so-called prophets today make predictions that are either a) not fulfilled (anybody remember Harold Camping predicting the end of the world in 2011?) or b) so vague that they can’t be falsified. Anybody can predict that hard times are coming, but hard times are always coming! It’s meaningless.
Second, in addition to foretelling the future, the gift of prophecy was used to forth-tell the word of God. Look at how Peter describes the prophetic work of Jesus in Acts 3:22-23. Clearly, God’s people are supposed to obey God’s prophets. Indeed, it is their ability to predict the future that tells us when we should listen! On the other hand, any prophet who can’t correctly predict the future can safely be ignored.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the gift of HEALING. There are many Scriptures we could examine here, but let’s look at Acts 3:7-8, the story of Peter healing the lame man. Once again, pay attention to the characteristics of this healing. First, it’s a healing of a man everybody knows is sick. The lame man isn’t a ringer. Second, his ailment is obvious. It’s not like one of his legs is longer than the other. The dude can’t walk! Third, Peter heals him instantaneously. Thus, the gift of healing was the instantaneous cure of a publicly known, obvious illness. That’s a test that every healing in the Bible can pass, but no modern day “healing” will.
The gift of MIRACLES was similar. For our example here, consider what Paul does in Acts 13:8-12. Once again, take note of the spectacular nature of the use of this gift. We start off with Elymas the sorcerer, a man who can see perfectly. Everybody knows he can see. Then, Paul curses him, and he loses his sight. This too is obvious to everyone. It’s not like Elymas would fake being blind in order to make Paul look good! A miracle, then, is an obvious working of God in the world with no natural explanation. Throughout the New Testament, we see the enemies of Jesus and the gospel being unable to explain away miracles. They might say that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, but they couldn’t deny that he was casting out demons. Any true miracle today would be equally undeniable.
Let’s wrap things up by looking at a couple of gifts people don’t usually claim to have today. The first is the gift of KNOWLEDGE. I think the best explanation for this gift comes in John 14:25-26. Note that we’ve seen part of this before. The Holy Spirit teaching the apostles all things was the gift of prophecy. On the other hand, the Spirit bringing to their remembrance all that Jesus taught, I think that’s the gift of knowledge. It was supernatural total recall of spiritual teaching, especially the teaching of the Lord.
Finally, we come to the gift of WISDOM. Normally, when we think of Biblical wisdom, we think of the wisdom of Solomon, but that’s not really how the gift manifested in the New Testament. For instance, look at Luke 21:14-15. Basically, the gift of wisdom was the gift of winning debates. Jesus was able to make His opponents look like idiots, even though they weren’t, because He had the spirit of wisdom. Similarly, in Acts 6, the people who want to argue with Stephen aren’t able to withstand the spirit and wisdom with which he is speaking. People with the gift of wisdom never lost an argument!
When I returned to my store of sermon requests last week in preparation for this lesson, I saw that the next topic on the list was for a sermon on gossip. As they asked, I will keep the requester anonymous!
All of us must acknowledge, though, that whether or not we requested a sermon on gossip, we can benefit from a sermon on gossip. In fact, I think that gossip is one of the particular temptations to which disciples are exposed. After all, we are more interested in others than sinners are because Jesus calls us to be.
However, just like any other good thing, Satan can turn our interest in others into evil. The book of Proverbs is full of warnings about the dangers of whispering and gossip. At the same time, though, we know that not all discussions of others constitute gossip. For instance, when the elders meet to discuss the welfare of the flock, that’s the furthest thing in the world from gossip!
How, then, can we tell the difference? How can we know when neutral or even praiseworthy speech about others turns into ungodly speech? Let’s spend this morning, then, considering when words become gossip.
The first thing that causes words to become gossip is WHEN THEY ARE UNTRUE. For instance, consider the warning of Ephesians 4:31. Among the things that we are to put away is slander, which is telling or repeating a lie about someone, and malice, which is an insidious desire to hurt someone that often leads to slander.
Hopefully, it isn’t news to anybody here that it’s wrong to lie about somebody else in order to cause them harm in some way. However, I think it’s easier for all of us to end up on the wrong side of that line than we think.
What if somebody has done us wrong—really wrong!—and we’ve got all this rage and indignation built up inside of us? We’re talking to one of our good friends about how no-good and low-down this person is. We’re telling the story of all the horrible things they’ve done to us, and this. . . idea springs into our heads. We could tell our friend that this person has done this other horrible thing too! Well, no, it’s not true, exactly, but they’d have done it if they’d have thought of it! And so we slip it in to complete the narrative.
Brethren, I’m well aware that some of us are storytellers and some of us aren’t, but a good story is no excuse to slander somebody else. No matter how enjoyable that might feel in the moment, the price is more than we want to pay.
Second, words become gossip WHEN THEY ARE CARELESS. One of the most sobering warnings in Scripture appears in Matthew 12:36-37. Here, Jesus tells us that we endanger our souls not only when we lie, but when we speak idly and carelessly.
There are several ways in which speech can be careless. First of all, we can be careless with the truth. We heard this juicy tidbit about a brother, and it’s so good that we pass it on without much concern for whether it’s true or not. Maybe we make up the juicy tidbit ourselves and start spreading it around because we think it’s plausible.
Note, by the way, that carelessness with the truth is a serious problem when it comes to stories and memes on the Internet. When we hit “Share” on some piece of political clickbait without checking it out carefully, we are sinning according to the terms of Matthew 12:36. Wouldn’t it be the dumbest thing in the world if we ended up in hell because of the garbage we shared on Facebook?
Similarly, we can be careless about the consequences of our words. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it needs to be said. The truth carelessly spread can cause strife in friendships, in marriages, and in churches. We need to think about the strife-causing potential of our words, and if we see possible problems, we need to keep those lips zipped.
Third, words become gossip WHEN THEY PROCEED FROM EVIL SUSPICIONS. Once again, let’s look at a laundry-list verse to extract this idea, 1 Timothy 6:4. Contextually, Paul is talking about evil suspicions stirred up by doctrinal controversy, but whatever their origin, evil suspicions are problematic, and they lead to speech that is problematic.
We know that our hearts are in the grip of evil suspicions when we find ourselves imputing bad motives to others when it is not justified by the evidence. We especially have to be careful about this when we are talking about others whom we dislike.
There are times when it is necessary to talk about the bad behavior of others. I’ve watched elders all across the country do this. However, when we do, we have to be careful to make sure that there is a factual basis for every word that crosses our lips.
For instance, let’s say that Freddy is a Christian who has been struggling with his attendance. One Sunday, Freddy is absent. We notice, and we say to our friend, “I bet Freddy saw that it was a nice day outside and went fishing instead.” Let me point out that we don’t know that. If we had called Freddy, asked him where he was, and he said, “Fishing,” that would be one thing, but we didn’t. In the absence of evidence, we’re letting our evil suspicions do the talking, and that’s wrong. By contrast, the godly thing to do is to assume the best about others and their motives until we find out the truth.
Finally, words become gossip WHEN THEY DO NOT GIVE GRACE. Here, consider Ephesians 4:29. In this text, Paul is drawing a contrast between two kinds of talk: corrupting talk, which eats away at the hearts of those who hear it, and edifying talk, which builds up those who hear it. Edifying talk gives grace.
Some people say that whenever we are talking about a third party who isn’t present, that’s gossip. I don’t think that’s true, and this verse is one of the reasons why. It is totally possible for such a conversation to edify and give grace. If Bradley comes into my office, and we start talking about a brother with whom I ate lunch the other day, if I am motivated by love and by the desire to help Bradley do his job better, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that. I’m bringing the church closer together. I’m giving grace.
On the other hand, let’s say that my motives are different. Let’s say that I think somebody is a bad guy, and I want to make sure that Bradley thinks he’s a bad guy too. I don’t want to help him. I want to make sure that Bradley and I are up here and he’s down there. Even if I am scrupulously careful to make sure that everything I say is true, that’s still gossip. I’m trying to corrupt my audience, not help him.
In this, brethren, we have to pay close attention to our hearts. I can imagine two Christians having a conversation about some brother who has fallen in sin, saying all the pious things about praying for him and helping him, yet each coming away with secret glee that they’re righteous and he isn’t. Even if we aren’t lying about somebody else, we have to make sure that we aren’t lying to ourselves about our motives too.
Psalm 107 is clearly a versified psalm (notice the repetition found in vs. 6, 13, 19, and 28), and it is about God’s deliverance of people in various kinds of trouble. It opens by calling all of God’s redeemed to praise Him. Then, it lists various kinds of redemption. God rescues those who are lost in the desert (4-9), imprisoned (10-16), sick (17-22), and caught in storms on the sea (23-32). The psalm concludes with a discussion of God’s ability to turn things upside down, whether the fertility of land (33-38) or the fortunes of humankind (39-43).
Psalm 108 is an expression of praise and a cry for help in battle. In it, the psalmist begins by declaring his determination to praise God and give thanks to Him. Such praise is due to God because of His steadfast love. The psalmist calls for God’s exaltation than asks for His help. He recalls God’s promise to defend the territory of Israel and give victory over Israel’s enemies. However, apparently the fortified cities of Edom have defied the armies of Israel, so the psalmist pleads with God for help, which he knows will be effective.
Psalm 109 is an imprecatory psalm aimed at one of David’s enemies. He asks God to speak up because his enemies are slanderously and treacherously accusing him. David then curses his enemy, beginning with personal harm, then extending to children and even parents, with the result that God will destroy even the memory of his family (Note, by the way, that vs. 8 is applied to Judas in Acts 1:20.). This is an appropriate punishment because the wicked man himself took such delight in cursing others, so he deserves to have those curses land on him instead.
By contrast, David asks for God’s blessing because he is poor and suffering. He contrasts the curses that his enemies have flung at him with the blessings that he knows the Lord will bring. He concludes by promising to praise God for His goodness.
Psalm 110 is a messianic psalm cited in many different places in the New Testament. In it, God invites David’s Lord to sit at His right hand and to have dominion over His enemies. He promises that the Lord’s people will follow Him and observes that He is a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. The psalm concludes with the promise that God will help the Lord to have victory over His enemies.
Psalm 111 praises God for His good works. The psalmist begins by declaring that he will praise God. God is worthy of such praise because of the greatness of His good works. Especially, He provides for His people and gave them the land as an inheritance. He established His law, and He redeemed His people. The wise learn from these things to fear and praise Him.
A few days ago, Ellen DeGeneres made headlines by sitting next to George W. Bush and daring to interact cordially with the man. Many expressed their shock that she would be civil to a conservative who did lots of conservative things while he was president. In response, DeGeneres opined that you’re supposed to be kind to everyone, regardless of what they have done.
As unremarkable as this might sound to Christians, apparently it too was controversial. Yesterday, this op-ed from Vanity Fair wandered across my news feed (side note: how many Vanity Fair readers these days are aware that the title comes from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress?). In it, the author takes DeGeneres to task for her never-never-land moralizing when presented with an enemy like Bush. Among his sins, the author numbers not only his intentional actions (starting the Iraq War) but also his unintentional errors (botching the response to Hurricane Katrina). One should, apparently, not socialize with those who make mistakes.
In this, I can’t help but see a twofold reminder of a) how badly we need Christ in order to be kind, and b) how bad things get without Him. Have self-professed Christians been ungracious and vengeful too? Of course they have! However, even atheists realize that this is not how things are supposed to go. The most religiously ignorant American out there is still aware that Jesus stands for the idea that you are supposed to be nice to people.
For those who are in the faith, the relationship between Christ and kindness is profound. Because of His grace, our lives are hidden in Him, and we have the hope of eternal life. His example teaches us to be gracious, and His blessings free us to be gracious. I can be kind even to my enemies without fear of being taken advantage of, because the damage they might do to me pales in comparison to the riches of His grace. Jesus makes His people invincible in doing good. No matter what happens, we still will overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us!
Take Christ away, and the invincibility drops out. If our lives aren’t hidden in Him, they can’t be hidden anywhere. Instead, we have to be eternally vigilant against threats to the things we value, and we must attack our enemies constantly to make sure they can’t harm us. Without the wealth of Christ’s forgiveness, we can’t afford to forgive others. In a dog-eat-dog world, the only imperative is to be the top dog.
It is only natural, then, for folks like the Vanity Fair writer to be vengeful, to be angry at DeGeneres for not scoring political points when she had the opportunity. Doesn’t she understand that this is ideological war to the knife??? You should only dole out kindness when you know it is safe and it will cost you nothing. Certainly, kindness should not be lavished on enemies!
To the worldly mind, all of the above makes sense and is logically consistent (and note, by the way, that I believe such worldliness is all too evident on the left and right alike. Donald Trump is not noted for his kindness to his enemies.). However, when a society embraces norms of ungraciousness and vindictiveness, the potential for disaster almost cannot be overstated. Civil wars don’t come from political disagreement. They come from the hearts of people who believe their enemies are hateful and worthless.
Christ stands for kindness because He stands for the intrinsic value of everyone. Apart from Him, I don’t know of any way to reach the conclusion that everyone matters. Without Him, we inevitably will behave as though no one does.