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Tuesday, September 06, 2022

A couple of months ago, Clay made me a very gracious offer. He said that throughout the month of August, I could preach all of the Sunday morning sermons so that I could be sure to get in everything I wanted to say to this congregation before leaving. After I argued with him about this for a little while, I invested some thought in figuring out what I wanted to say. I concluded that I wanted to preach 3 sermons about the Jackson Heights church personality, highlighting the three attributes that make us happy and successful in doing the Lord's work.

The first of these attributes is kindness. This is a strikingly kind congregation, which makes us both appealing to others and pleasing to God. I know that many of you practiced great kindness before you ever heard of me, and I pray that such kindness will continue to mark this congregation for decades after my departure. This morning, let's contemplate the role of kindness in the life of the Christian.

We first should reveal our kindness to those in need. Consider the words of the Lord in Luke 14:12-14. As it often does, the gospel of the kingdom here turns conventional wisdom on its head. Jesus tells us that when we give a meal for others, we shouldn't invite those who might benefit us. Instead, we ought to invite the poor who cannot repay us. When we do this, God will be the One who does the repaying.

Although Jesus is discussing food specifically, the applications of His message extend far beyond the dinner table. When we truly are serving Him, we aren't thinking of the future and how our good works will help us. Rather, we are doing good with no thought of the earthly consequences.

This is tricky! I figured out a long time ago that the right thing to do also was the smart thing to do, even in earthly terms. It's righteous for us to be faithful to our spouses, but it's also wise. As a rule, adultery brings 70 kinds of misery and sorrow down on the head of the adulterer. Likewise, it’s both godly and wise to tell the truth. If you're a liar, people will figure it out, and soon nobody will trust you.

However, kindness is only kindness when it is extended without the thought of earthly benefit. We can't be kind only when we think it will help us or even when we think it will help the church. In fact, we ought to be kind even when we have concluded that no earthly good will come from it at all.

To the world, this is foolishness, but to the Christian, it makes perfect sense. Verse 14 explains why. Often, we aren't kind because we want to protect ourselves from being swindled by some con artist. Sometimes, the issue isn't even the money. It's our pride. Regardless, we have a promise from God that whatever we surrender will be repaid in heaven. His great, eternal kindness in heaven frees us to be kind here.

Similarly, God calls us to be kind to our enemies. Here, let's read from Romans 12:19-21. Many Bible students find this text hopelessly confusing, but I think the confusion arises because of our misconceptions about the role of vengeance in the life of the Christian. Understood correctly, this isn't a passage about whether vengeance should be taken at all. It's a passage about who should be taking the vengeance.

In the world, the answer to this question is easy and obvious. If somebody pushes you, you push back. Some people will walk up to their enemy and blow his brains out; others will look for little ways to make his life miserable at work or even at church. Still others will just talk bad about him in the hope of diminishing him in the eyes of others. Though obviously they vary greatly in terms of significance, all of these are forms of vengeance.

Paul exhorts us to adopt a very different strategy toward our enemies. Rather than looking for ways to get them back, we should treat them kindly. We should look for ways to help them.

The world thinks this is nuts. How can we possibly let insults and offenses go??? Paul’s answer is that vengeance belongs to God. Just like His promise of heavenly repayment frees us to be generous to people who won't help us, so too His promise of vengeance frees us from the need to be vengeful ourselves.

Here is where we intersect all those imprecatory psalms that we've been singing on Wednesday nights. I'm sure that many who have been attending the class wonder if it is even godly to sing such things under the new covenant. According to this text, the answer is clearly yes. God has promised us that He will avenge us, and it is always right to ask Him to fulfill His promises. That's part of the covenant!

This may put us in a seemingly contradictory position. On the one hand, we show love to our enemy and treat him kindly. On the other, we pray to the God of justice to punish him for his wrongdoing. However, the same contradiction appears on a much larger scale elsewhere in Scripture. Is it not true that the same God who loves sinners also will end up condemning most of them to hell? The answer lies in the unique ability of God to mete out both mercy and justice. We can put our vengeance in His hands and trust that He will do the right thing.

Finally, we must be kind to our opponents. Our final passage of the morning is 2 Timothy 2:24-26. These aren't the people who wrong us or harm our families. These are the people who are wrong and annoying on Facebook and won't be quiet.

In my twenties, I had this one written down on a 3x5 card and taped to my bathroom mirror for years. There's a pretty good case that I shouldn't have taken it down at all! I have some trouble being kind to the needy, but I have a lot of trouble with being kind to opponents. I have a big combative streak to my personality, and if you get me riled up enough, online or even in person, I get much more interested in scoring points than in being gentle.

However, gentle is what Christ wants us to be. In part, this means picking our battles. It's easy to get mad at people on social media when we can't see their faces, but it's nearly impossible to persuade somebody who can't see our face. There's not much point in trying to win over somebody who disagrees on Facebook!

Also, notice the stakes that Paul mentions in verse 28. These opponents aren't people who disagree with us about politics or college football. They are those who have been taken captive by the devil and are following his will. Outside of that, we really need to ask whether engaging an opponent is worth it at all.

When the stakes are that high, when somebody’s soul is in danger because of their convictions, we need to remember what the goal is. It is not winning the argument, as judged by us or even a third party. It is convincing the opponent. When that is the case, we must be patient, gentle, and humble; otherwise, there is zero chance that they are going to listen to us even if we're right. This can take a long time and be very frustrating, but it's the only way to turn an erring heart back to God.

Leaving the Pulpit

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Next Sunday morning, I will preach my last sermon ever for the Jackson Heights church. I suspect it will be the last sermon that I ever preach, period. Once I move to Texas, I will be a member of the Kleinwood church, which currently has four preachers on staff and one sermon slot each week for all of them to fill. I can think of few things less seemly or helpful to the kingdom than elbowing for a spot in that rotation!

This is a difficult transition for me. I have been preaching the gospel in one capacity or another since late 2004. Like Paul, I have never been among the great speakers of the brotherhood. Anyone who looked to me for soaring oratorical brilliance would have been disappointed.

Typically, the compliments that I have received have been that I made the Bible understandable and clear. I have striven to do so. It's not a very dramatic goal, but I am not a very dramatic person.

Nonetheless, I believe that I have faithfully served the Lord and His church in my preaching, and I have found great fulfillment in doing so. For almost 20 years, I have taken my place before God's people and explained the Scriptures to them as best I knew how. It hasn't always been very good, necessarily, but it has been my best. A man can lay his head on the pillow and be satisfied with that.

No more. Of course, my last sermon is not the last sermon for others. At Jackson Heights, my place will be taken by Clay Gentry, my beloved brother and co-worker. Clay is an excellent speaker and a serious Bible student. I am confident that he will give the brethren there all the spiritual nourishment they need.

So too at Kleinwood. I know all the men from whom I will be learning. I am certain that they will ably proclaim the gospel without any help from me.

My work of preaching is over, but the work of preaching will continue. This is humbling, certainly. God does not need me preaching anymore, but He has never needed me preaching. I have been useful, I think, but I have never been necessary. If I had never existed, the work still would have gone on.

However, in a deeper sense, my own interchangeability as a preacher confirms that I have kept my proper place. If a work falls apart without a man, that shows that the work was about him, not about God. Some preachers in the world have founded mighty megachurches, but typically, once the preacher is gone, the megachurch collapses. I wouldn't want that to be my legacy!

Instead, my legacy will be that for a time, I served something much larger than myself. Preachers come and go, but the word of God is eternal. In years to come, others will replace those who have replaced me, but if the hearts of those replacements are steadfast, they will proclaim the same gospel I did. The earthly memory of any of us will not last long, but our reward will be great.

A man can be satisfied with that too.


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Last week, I told you that because of the graciousness of Clay, I was going to be able to preach three farewell sermons, not just one. I intend to use these sermons to focus on the three main personality traits of the Jackson Heights church, the things that will enable us to remain healthy and strong for years to come if we continue in them. Last week we talked about kindness; today we will explore unity.

During the pandemic, this congregation showed its commitment to unity. Other churches got in fusses or even split, but this one remained united in submission to the elders. I applaud all of you for that, but unity is a process, not an event. Years or decades from now, other challenges to unity will arise, and unless the people of this congregation are prepared for them, they will wreak havoc. This morning, then, let's examine Christian unity.

This begins with the basis of unity. We see it described in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. At first glance, this seems like an odd place to start studying unity. After all, the verse doesn't even mention the word! Instead, it describes the attitude with which the Thessalonians received the preaching of Paul. They didn't treat it like a message from a mere man. They treated it like the word of God.

This, indeed, is one of the things that we must believe in order to be disciples of Christ. We must believe that the Bible is the word of God and treat it differently from any other message. There are, after all, any number of human ideas that we might encounter. We evaluate those critically, accepting what seems good to us and rejecting what seems bad.

However, that is not the appropriate way to treat the word of God. People can be wrong; God can't be. Thus, the only appropriate response to divine revelation is to accept it without question.

Therefore, the Bible can be a basis for unity unlike any other. We might have all sorts of opinions about how we should worship and serve God. Some of those ideas might be good; some of them might be bad. If we found our church on ideas like that, any of us could very reasonably decide that we disagree and split the church over them.

By contrast, no such reasonable disagreement can exist over what God has revealed. God has told His people to sing, and if we truly honor Him, we cannot dispute that we should sing in our worship. In the New Testament, we see various ways that churches used their money. We know all of those ways are right, and they don't leave any room for argument either. Thus, if we limit our practice to what God has told us to do, unity must be preserved in our congregation because there is no godly basis for taking issue with any of it.

I fear that we have largely forgotten this today, but this was one of the main reasons why the leaders of the Restoration urged a return to the Bible. Within the Bible, there is no opportunity for sectarian division. Consider, for instance, this quotation from Alexander Campbell. It comes from the Millennial Harbinger, volume 3, page 5. It reads:

“We can only say, that all the items of our faith being facts supported by the testimony of Apostles and Prophets, there can be no article of faith in danger in all that we have written. But in our views of certain sayings, or in our opinions of these facts, it is possible we have not always coincided exactly with the Apostles. Hence the necessity of founding Christian union, communion, and cooperation upon the belief of facts—upon faith and obedience, rather than upon agreement in opinions.”

This must be our goal today too, to found our unity upon the belief of facts rather than upon agreement in opinions. Only then can we be sure that we will remain united.

Second, let us consider the development of unity. Paul explains this process in Ephesians 4:11-13. Here, he describes four categories of helpers given to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. The apostles and prophets help us today only through the word, but we still have preachers and elders. All of these different men, though, work toward the same purpose. We equip the saints and build up the body until everyone reaches knowledge, maturity, and unity.

This is a rich concept! Among other things, it shows that unity is the product of Bible study. Sometimes, we think that unity is the product of sheer determination to be united. When churches split, it's because they didn't want unity badly enough.

Instead, this passage points us to a defect in teaching. Christians fail to be united because they have not been equipped and built up.

We are equipped and built up for the purpose of unity in two main ways. The first of these is knowledge of the Biblical pattern. Sadly, there are all kinds of self-described believers out there who could not be united with us because they are ignorant of the Bible's teaching about the early church. To return to Alexander Campbell's language, they can't be united by belief in the facts because they don't know the facts.

The cure for the disease is obvious. Teach the facts! If we want unity, we must make sure that everyone here knows what the early church did. It's not a long or complicated list, but it's one that we must return to regularly to ensure that we all stay on the same page.

Second, we must emphasize the importance of unity and the danger of division. The Bible has very little to say about a number of the hobby horses that preachers like to ride, but it is filled with exhortations to unity and warnings against division. When we know the facts, we know how we can be united in following God's pattern. When we know the Bible’s teaching on unity, we know how important it is to stick to that pattern.

Finally, let's contemplate the biggest threat to unity. Paul defines it in Philippians 2:1-3. He tells us that if we want to be united in spirit, we must do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit. This seems like an unlikely problem to arise. After all, all of us are people of goodwill. We don't want to be selfish or conceited!

However, it’s a problem that every one of us can create. It comes about because of our opinions. As we have already seen, unity created by agreement in opinions is much more fragile than agreement based on belief in the facts. If our unity is based on opinions, it will last only until one of us very reasonably changes our mind.

As a result, introducing human opinions into the work and worship of the church is a deadly threat to unity. We have moved from the realm of what God has said is right to the realm of what we think is right. When we start insisting that others must line up with our opinions, that's when we're acting out of conceit.

Sometimes, preachers want to start drawing lines in the sand here. They want to say that a church that practices X that is not in the Bible is apostate and doomed. Frankly, I think that's beside the point. We don't have to know that doing X will send people to hell. All we have to know is that it is not in the Bible and thus is a threat to unity. When we understand how desperately Jesus wants His people to be one, why would we even try to bring something like that in?

This, then, is my final exhortation to this congregation about unity. Stick to the Bible. Do only the things that are in the Bible. Don't try pushing your opinions and clever ideas on others. As long as this church stays committed to the Scriptural pattern in all things, its unity will never be broken.

Right Message, Wrong Audience

Monday, August 22, 2022

At first glance, the narrative of Exodus 2:11-14 appears to be one of impulsiveness and immaturity. Moses, a 40-year-old resident of Pharaoh's household, decided to visit his Hebrew kinfolk. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, strikes the tormentor dead, and hides the body. The next day, he tries to break up a fight between Hebrews and gets a snarky retort about the Egyptian he killed yesterday. He realizes that the word is out and flees for his life.

However, the inspired reading of this story, as provided by Stephen in Acts 7:23-28, doesn't lay any of the blame on the future lawgiver. According to Stephen, Moses expected his people to understand that God had sent him to deliver them, but they missed the point. The exile of Moses in Midian, then, doesn't represent 40 years in which he needed to grow up. Instead, it represents 40 years of unnecessary suffering by the Israelites because they rejected the one God had chosen to lead them to freedom.

As Stephen reveals during the rest of his final sermon, this is not a unique problem for the Jews. Their fathers had rejected God's chosen deliverer Joseph, and they themselves had rejected God’s chosen deliverer Jesus. Of course, this problem isn't limited to the descendants of Abraham. To this day, members of every nation under heaven reject those whom God has sent to teach them.

Let's look at this first from the perspective of the teacher. Today, many Christians consider evangelism to be work best suited for highly trained diplomats. You have to say everything just right and give no grounds for offense if you want to lead someone to the Lord. In many cases, they base their beliefs on their own experience. They themselves tried to lead a sinner to Christ, they didn't say everything just right, the sinner rejected the gospel, and they blame themselves for it.

Generally, the explanation is much simpler. Moses certainly didn't do everything exactly right in his first attempt to rescue the Israelites, but it was still their fault for rejecting him. In the same way, if we don't present the gospel in exactly the right way and people reject it, they’re not rejecting our approach. They're rejecting the gospel. They weren't ready to hear it, and they may never be ready to hear it.

Sometimes, though, the shoe is on the other foot. Someone else has challenged what we believe. Maybe they're young and a little bit arrogant, like Joseph. Maybe they come from a different background than ours and seem stuck-up, like Moses. Regardless, we decide they're not worth listening to, and we close our ears to their position.

Although this is a natural way to behave, it is very dangerous. Truth from the lips of anyone remains truth, no matter whether we like them or not. If we pay more attention to the messenger than the message, our rejection of truth may cost us our souls.

In fact, in both scenarios, the gospel ought to be the most important element. When we try to teach others, we must put our trust in the gospel and rely on it to do its work. We aren't going to change matters much one way or the other. So too, we must allow the gospel to do its work in our hearts. If that comes at the price of overlooking annoying behavior by someone else, it's a small price to pay indeed!

The Faith of Parents

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews has many lessons for us, and surely among them is that God finds people of faith in places where we wouldn't look. We see an instance of this in Hebrews 11:23. Here, the writer refers to a familiar story, the story of the birth of Moses. Typically, our children learn that Moses’ parents hid him and eventually put him in the basket in the bulrushes before they turn five.

However, the Hebrews writer adds a spiritual dimension to this account. He notes that the parents of Moses acted as they did out of faith. They spared their son because they saw that he was beautiful and they did not fear the king’s edict.

This is an awfully bold stance for a couple of slaves to take! Typically, slaves fear the edicts of kings greatly, especially when they already know that the king has no love for them or for their people. It doesn't seem like the beauty of a baby should weigh heavily in the balance against royal wrath.

To understand this, we must start with Genesis 9:5-7. This snippet contains a pair of theological opposites. On the one hand, people were not to shed the blood of other people, and God would require their blood if they did. Instead, they were supposed to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. God wants humans to seek life, not death.

The parents of Moses can't have known very much about God, but this is one of the few things that they could have known, and it offers the best explanation for their conduct. Their child was beautiful to them, and in part he was beautiful as an expression of the divine will for humankind. They did right in having children, regardless of what the law said.

Similarly, they did not fear the king's edict because the king was not the highest authority in their lives. His tyranny could and would be checked by God, and ultimately, God's will would stand, not his. Even slaves don't have to fear the king if they have God on their side!

In the moment, this is only obvious to the eyes of faith, but it becomes clearer in history. Throughout the Bible and throughout the millennia that have passed since its writing, powerful forces often have arrayed themselves against the righteous. In the end, though, earthly powers are cast down, and the word of God continues along with those who follow it.

Today, parents and prospective parents have many reasons to fear. The days seem to be growing more evil, Opponents of Christianity are getting more vocal and more influential all the time, and overt persecution may be on the horizon. It's easy to despair of raising godly children or even having children at all.

Nonetheless, we must be fearless. We must do what is necessary to train our children in the ways of the Lord, regardless of what opposition we face. The parents of Moses had no idea that one day their son would bring Pharaoh to his knees, and we have no idea what the future holds either. However, this much is certain: When the people of God trust Him, no power in heaven, on earth, or in hell can overcome them.

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