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Psalm 135

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Hallelujah!  Praise His name!
Praise Him, servants of the Lord!
All who stand within His courts,
Let your praises be outpoured!
Praise the Lord, for He is good;
Glorify His lovely name;
Jacob is His chosen race,
Israel is His own to claim.

For I know that He is great;
High above all gods, He reigns;
As He pleases, so He does,
Ruling all as His domains.
From the distant ends of earth,
Clouds arise as He decrees;
He makes lightning for the rain;
Winds come from His treasuries.

Strong in Egypt, He destroyed
All the firstborn, man and beast;
In her midst, He sent His signs
On the greatest and the least.
Striking nations, killing kings,
To His own He gave the land;
Now recall His timeless deeds,
For His judgment is at hand.

Idols wear a human form,
But they cannot see or speak;
Those who trust the gods they made
Like them will be mute and weak.
All of Israel, bless the Lord,
Dwelling in Jerusalem;
All who fear Him, bless His name;
Hallelujah!  Honor Him!

Suggested tune:  MENDELSSOHN
(“Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing”)

The Meaning of "In the Garden"

Monday, December 14, 2020

Some hymns are lightning rods for criticism.  They contain an odd mix of attributes.  Something about them is strongly appealing enough that they are sung, while they contain something else that offends the sensibilities of other Christians.  As opposed to the bell curve of popularity that most hymns possess, these hymns have a V curve.  Either you love ‘em, or you hate ‘em!  In my experience, such hymns include “Days of Elijah”, “Thomas’ Song”, and the king of them all, “In the Garden”.

“In the Garden” has been part of the worship repertoire in every church of which I have been a member.  Nonetheless, it is the subject of frequent complaint online.  Some brethren believe it teaches direct personal revelation.  Others wonder how they can claim that their joy in Jesus is more than anyone else ever has known.

Many of these issues resolve themselves once we realize what the subject of the hymn actually is.  Those who are so inclined can find the words of C. Austin Miles, the author himself, at  To summarize, though, the hymn is about the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus in John 20:11-18, with the singer invited to put themselves in the position of Mary.

Thus, we sing about Jesus speaking to us because on that occasion, Jesus did literally speak to Mary.  The hymn insists that no one else ever has known such joy because Mary was the first person (probably) to see the risen Lord.  Everything in the hymn suddenly makes a whole lot more sense!

There is nothing particularly unusual about putting ourselves in the position of Bible characters as we sing.  None of us have a problem with singing “Dare to Stand Like Joshua” even though we are not literally “tenting by the way” (unless we happen to be on a camping trip).  As we sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, we cannot literally see the blood flowing from the head, hands, and feet of Jesus, but we call each other to “See!” regardless.

We recognize that there can be considerable spiritual value in these imaginative flights.  The true problem with “In the Garden” is not that it adopts Mary’s point of view.  It is that you can read the lyrics and sing them attentively without having the slightest clue that you’re singing about Mary.  I myself did for decades before somebody clued me in.

This is not such an issue when it comes to “In the Garden” itself.  A congregation that has been enlightened (by a bulletin article, say) can sing the hymn with spirit and understanding.  It does, however, highlight an important trait of good hymns generally.  They must be meaningful, and they must be clear enough that the singer can understand the meaning while singing.  Hymns are no place for poetic obscurity!  As lovely as “In the Garden” is, it would have been a much better hymn if it had been a clearer hymn.  When it comes to hymns that share its faults without sharing its virtues, there are better choices.

All Things Working Together for Good

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Even in the often-difficult epistle to the Romans, Romans 8:28 stands out as a difficult passage to understand.  It appears to assert a Panglossian worldview—everything is working out for good!—even though we live in a world in which many things appear not to be good.  TV preachers seize on this text to promise future prosperity to the folks who send them money, skeptics mock (as Voltaire did), and many Christians are confused by the disconnect between what the passage appears to say and their own lived experience.

As is often the case in Romans, the best way to resolve this textual difficulty is to ignore the verse numbers and read the text in context.  When Paul says “all things”, he doesn’t mean literally everything that happens.  Instead, he refers to the previous 10 verses, in which he explains how three different things are working together for good.

The first of these things is the physical creation, which he discusses in Romans 8:18-22.  Paul is quite clear that the current state of the creation is not good.  It is futile, enslaved, and corrupt, and it groans with the pangs of childbirth.  Paul was no Pollyanna.  He knew, probably better than we do, that this is a fallen world.

However, he also points out that the state of creation is not hopeless but hopeful.  It groans because it anticipates the revelation of the sons of God.  Additionally, in that day, creation itself will be released from corrupt slavery to glorious freedom, as per the promise of the new heavens and new earth in 2 Peter 3:13.

Second, Paul acknowledges in Romans 8:23-25 that we ourselves groan.  We experience the first fruits of the Spirit now, but we anticipate the redemption of our body.  Because of our hope, we persevere through suffering.

Finally, Paul explores the groaning of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:26-27.  Once again, we see a problem with fallenness and failure.  We don’t know how to pray as we should.  However, the Spirit intercedes for us so that the prayers we cannot express are presented before the throne of God anyway.

Thus, Romans 8:18-27 presents us with three groaners:  the creation, we ourselves, and the Spirit.  However, Paul wants us to understand that these groans are hopeful.  Why?  Because God is working in all of these things for good.  The creation will reveal the sons of God and be freed.  Our bodies will be redeemed.  The Spirit will render our prayers intelligible.

Does that mean that everything in our lives is going to go the way we want it?  Of course not!  However, the things that matter are in place, and through them, God will accomplish our salvation.

The Problem with Gambling

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

In April of last year, the state legislature of Tennessee legalized online betting on sports.  On November of this year, four online sportsbooks were approved to operate in Tennessee for the first time.  Not surprisingly, since that time, we’ve been bombarded with ads trying to entice us to gamble on sports.

Even at a practical level, gambling is not something I would advise others to do.  As the saying goes, the house always wins.  If they didn’t win, they wouldn’t go on operating, would they?  The way to get rich from betting on sports is not to bet on sports.  It is to operate one of those sportsbooks!  I wouldn’t bet on sports even if I were an atheist.

Of course, I’m not an atheist, and there is a moral component to this too.  Gambling is unwise, but we also must ask if it is immoral too.  In fact, I’m preaching this sermon because one of the elders asked me to explore the spiritual aspects of gambling.  All of us have heard that gambling is a sin, but what do the Scriptures say?   This morning, then, let’s consider the problem with gambling.

Our examination of this issue must begin with REASONING FROM THE SCRIPTURES.  We see an example of Paul doing this in Acts 17:2-3.  There, of course, was nothing in the Old Testament that out-and-out said, “Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.”  However, there are hundreds of prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, and Paul, using those prophecies as a starting point, reasoned from them to that conclusion.

Reasoning from the Scriptures is something that we are expected to do.  After all, Jesus condemns the Sadducees in Matthew 22 because they did not reason from the story of the burning bush to the conclusion that there is life after death.  However, all of us know people who have reasoned from the Scriptures to conclusions that were false.  Probably, we’ve even done that ourselves.

Thus, even though reasoning from the Scriptures is required, we also must regard our conclusions with skepticism.  We can fail to take into account everything that the Bible says.  Indeed, we even can deceive ourselves into reaching the wrong answer.  We must do it, but we also must do it carefully, and beware of regarding our conclusions with the same certainty as what the Bible directly states.

Gambling, of course, is an area where we must reason from the Scriptures.  Gambling certainly existed in the first century.  After all, we see the Roman guard gambling for the clothing of Jesus.  However, nowhere does the Bible condemn gambling as a sin per se.

Once some Christians realize this, they start jumping up and down and saying, “See?  I can gamble!  There’s nothing wrong with it!”  However, whether they know it or not, they have reasoned from the Scriptures to reach that conclusion, and the absence of a direct condemnation is not all the evidence there is.  Before we conclude that gambling is innocent, we need to consider the whole counsel of God.

In this regard, we must consider the importance of GUARDING AGAINST GREED.  Look at the words of Jesus in Luke 12:13-15.  This context is not about gambling at all.  It’s about a couple of brothers fighting over their inheritance.  However, Jesus warns us not only against that form of greed but against every form of greed.

That raises an important question, though.  How do we know when we’re being greedy?  After all, all of us want and need money.  I care very much that my salary is deposited into my bank account every week.  That’s not sinful; after all, the Scriptures tell us that the worker is worthy of his wage.  What’s the difference, though, between that and greed?

I think the answer is that greed arises when we start caring so much about money that we stop caring about others.  I care about being supported, yes, but I work throughout the week to give you value for your money.  Indeed, I try to give you more than you’re expecting.  Back when Larry still owned SCT, I know that he cared about those accounts receivable.  However, because he’s a good man, I know that he also cared about providing good service for his customers, so that everybody benefited, not just him.

The same thing is true when I buy and sell on the stock market.  Sometimes you’ll hear people say that stock trading is gambling because of the risk, but that’s not true.  The problem with gambling is greed, not risk, and buying and selling stocks isn’t necessarily greedy.  When I buy a stock, there’s a fair exchange.  They get the money they wanted more than the stock, and I get the stock I wanted more than the money.  Everybody benefits.  That’s the way the free market works!

Gambling, though, is different.  Unlike free-market exchange, gambling is a zero-sum game.  When we buy and sell goods and services, there are two winners, but with gambling there is always a winner and a loser.  If I had made a bet with Derrick on the outcome of the Alabama game last Saturday, he would have been the winner, and I would have been the loser.  He would have gotten all the money, and I would have ended up with nothing.

You see the problem?  When we actively want to hurt somebody financially for our benefit, or if we even don’t care that we are hurting them financially because we have benefited, we care more about money than we do about them.  That’s greed, and that’s a sin.

What matters then, is not the gambling per se.  It’s the greed, and that means that we must SPEAK TRUTH IN OUR HEARTS about whether we are being greedy or not.  Look at Psalm 15:1-2.  As the psalmist makes clear here, this is a big deal!  If we aren’t honest with ourselves about our motivations, self-deceit will separate us from God.

Is everybody who gambles necessarily acting out of greed?  I’m not willing to say that.  For example, I can remember that during one debate tournament in high school, I found myself playing poker for pennies between rounds.  I didn’t care whether I won or lost, which probably is why I lost.  If I had won, and somebody had asked me for the fifty cents or whatever, I would have given it to them.  I admit that I was being dumb, but I don’t believe I was being greedy.

However, I believe that the great majority of the time, when people gamble, greed is involved.  The key question to ask, I think, is, “Would you be gambling if there were no prospect of winning anything?”

Sometimes, the answer is yes.  At that debate tournament, I would have been happy to play cards with no stakes.  The money wasn’t my idea. 

Usually, though, the answer is no.  Think about online sports betting.  You don’t have to bet on sports to be a passionate sports fan.  The important thing about sports betting is not the sports.  It’s the money, and wanting to win that money at others’ expense is greedy.  The same holds true for playing the lottery, going to a casino, and a host of similar activities.

This is not an analysis that I can force on anybody else.  You can go off and bet on the Vols game while insisting all day long that it’s not about the money.  We must remember, though, that self-deception is sweet for now, but an eternity in hell is bitter.  Let’s be people who speak truth in our hearts, both about greed and about everything else.

What About the Thief on the Cross?

Monday, December 07, 2020

When it comes to discussion about baptism for the forgiveness of sins, most Christians know all the steps of the dance.  If we’re studying with a non-Christian and we show them passages like Acts 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21, one of two things is going to happen.  Either they are going to submit to the word of God, or (because of past denominational indoctrination), they are going to hunt for a reason to object.

The most popular objection resides in Luke 23:39-43.  “What about the thief on the cross?” they ask.  “He wasn’t baptized for the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus told him that he would be with Jesus in paradise.”

I don’t see much basis for the assumption that the thief wasn’t baptized (for all we know, he may have been), but there’s an even more significant problem for the argument than that.  It presumes that we find forgiveness of sins through Jesus now in the same way that people did during Jesus’ ministry, and we know for certain that isn’t true.

Consider, for instance, the account of Mark 2:1-12.  This story is a favorite in children’s Bible classes because of its dramatic story arc (“They dug a hole in the ROOF and lowered their friend through!”), but the faith of the friends, and even Jesus’ healing of the paralytic, are not the true point of the story.  Instead, in Jesus’ own words, all of this is recorded because it establishes that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.

In other words, alone of all people who ever have walked the face of the earth, Jesus could say to somebody, “Your sins are forgiven you,” and it would be true.  For anybody else to make such a claim would be blasphemy.  For Jesus, it was a statement of fact.

The paralytic is not the only recipient of grace through the spoken word of Jesus.  The same thing happens to the sinful woman in Luke 7, another sinful woman in John 8, and Zacchaeus in Luke 19.  To that list, we can add another—the thief on the cross.  Even granting the assumption that he wasn’t baptized, why did Jesus tell him he would be with Him in paradise?  Because the Son of Man had authority on earth to forgive sins.

These stories provide powerful illustrations of the power of the grace of Jesus, but they can’t provide us with a pattern to follow.  The Son of Man is no longer on earth.  He no longer has conversations with people to tell them that they are forgiven, and no other human being has the authority to issue grace by fiat. 

Today, then, rather than presuming that Jesus has forgiven us in the absence of confirmation from Him, we need to look to the pattern of salvation established by His disciples.  We cannot expect to hear His voice telling us that our sins are forgiven, but we can expect forgiveness as we submit to His will—through belief, repentance, confession, and baptism.

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