Category Archives: Preaching

My Name Is Lucky: The Tale of Eutychus

Here’s an imaginative first person narrative sermon I prepared and performed back in April of 2013 about the strange story of Eutychus in Acts 20:7-12. Enjoy!

I remember it was early spring and unseasonably warm. It was just after Passover. I can still smell the warm, salted breeze coming off the Aegean sea, and hear the squalk of seagulls circling above. We stood on the hill overlooking the harbor and waited for the ship to appear on the horizon.  The ship was carrying the Great Apostle we had heard so much about.

The stories were unbelievable. In every city he visited remarkable things took place.  A cripple was healed in one city. A slave girl was freed from an evil spirit in another. He was worshiped as a god one moment and nearly stoned to death the next. Nothing matched the stories told about his time in Ephesus.  There his preaching upset the entire economy and started a riot in the theater one day. Another day his preaching led local occultists to burn their expensive books of magic spells in a large bonfire. The most remarkable rumor of all was the claim that peope were being healed of various diseases just by touching Paul’s hankerchiefs!

Well, who in their right mind can believe such fanstic fairytales like these?  I certainly couldn’t….that is, until the incident.

My name in Greek means “Lucky.” I’ll let you decide if the name fits after you hear my story.  I was a teenager at the time. I prided myself in being an intelligent, rational person who was not going to believe everything I heard — especially regarding these traveling preachers and so-called wonderworkers. I had seen enough charltans and frauds in my short life to keep me suspicious of such people and their claims. Continue reading My Name Is Lucky: The Tale of Eutychus

Nic @ Night 4: Talking about “New Birth”

This Sunday I have the honor of preaching a message on one of the most significant truths and experiences in all the universe: God’s supernatural work of New Birth in the human heart. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again/from above” (John 3:3).

How do you talk about something that is necessary to experience firsthand?  It’s like describing a Mozart piece instead of listening to it.  It’s like talking about a Rembrandt painting rather than looking at it. It’s like trying to describe love to someone who’s never been in love.

These sermons drive a preacher to his knees, and bring him to the end of himself. I can only invite people to follow Nicodemus into that face-t0-face, personal encounter with Jesus, and pray that the Holy Spirit will come among us and open people’s eyes and transform hearts.  Come Holy Spirit!

Here’s a good quote from Gary Burge’s commentary on The Gospel of John:

“Religion is not necessarily a matter of personal knowledge or ethical behavior. Nor is it fidelity to religious traditions, no matter how virtuously they evoke higher ethical, religious behavior among us. Jesus is claiming that true spirituality is not discovering some latent capacity within the human soul and fanning it to flame. It is not uncovering a moral consciousness that is hidden by sedimentary layers of civilization’s corruptions. It is not a “horizontal” experience that takes up the materials available around us in the world.

Rather, Jesus claims, true religion is “vertical.” It has to do not with the human spirit, but with God’s Spirit. It is a foreign invasion, sabotage of the first order. True religion unites humanity with God’s powerful Spirit, who overwhelms, transforms, and converts (in the full meaning of the word) its subject. Our role in this transformation is belief(3:16,18), and yet is is a belief that is aided by God’s work within us since we live in the darkness and have our spiritual capacities handicapped with sin” (Gary Burge, Gospel of John: New Application Commentary, 126).

Come Holy Spirit!  Invade our presence, and sabotage our hearts! Blow mightily among us at MainStreet this Sunday and every day!

Relax Pastor, God Saves!

Christmas Eve is a great opportunity for churches to share the good news of the gospel with many unbelievers — sometimes hearing it for the first time. Pastors should give a clear invitation to respond in faith to the message of the gospel.

I plan to do this. I can’t wait to do this!

But there are many church leaders who place far too much pressure on themselves at their Christmas Eve services to get a good response. Each year I receive emails essentially urging me not to “blow it” at this big “super bowl” service of the year. One email I received from a godly leader whom I admire said:

My heart breaks when we lead people right up to the line of faith and then leave them hanging there.  They need your help, so boldly help them put their faith in Jesus this Christmas.  Finally, make sure people know what their next steps are.

Yes, true, I hear you…but are we forgetting something, or Someone?

I believe this way of thinking betrays a woefully low view of God and an inadequate view of the Holy Spirit’s role in our worship and preaching. The truth is they need God’s help to cross the line of faith and put their faith in Jesus. They need the Holy Spirit to show them what their next steps are. I have confidence that God knows each person’s heart and will not “leave them hanging there.” (Pastors: God doesn’t need us as much as we like to think. He just graciously allows us to play a big role sometimes.)

With a big view of God and a belief in the active role of the Holy Spirit, I don’t need to lose sleep over whether I botched the invitation or fell short in my follow up with people. I trust God is at work in the hearts of my hearers. He can lead them to take the next steps. God will plant a longing in someone’s heart and the Holy Spirit will draw them back next week for more. 

Again, I’m not arguing against bringing people to a point of decision, and offering clear follow up steps. I plan to. But I am arguing we need to relax, keep a proper perspective, and trust God more with the results.

To make my point, let’s have some fun and apply such thinking to the first Christmas sermon ever preached at that first Christmas Eve service unexpectedly held in that Judea field. Let’s look at the clear planning and follow-up work that first Christmas. Warning: Snarky satire ahead.

[Attendance: 2 or 3 shepherds, an Angelical Preacher who kept his sermon to less than a minute, and a kicking’ choir (really? sounds a bit traditional and boring…)]

The Christmas Story According to Some Overly Anxious Pastors

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger….that is, if you’ll take the proper next steps found in the bottom of the bulletin you received when you walked into the field tonight.

[It’s truly a miracle the Shepherds even heard the gospel that night since they had foolishly neglected to attend any of the scheduled worship services at any of the available synagogues in that region. Its hard to believe God could actually reach anybody outside the walls of an official place of worship. This is why all responsible heralds of the gospel will spend thousands of dollars on advertising, newspaper ads, hanging colorful banners by the road, and placing yard signs all over town making sure people know how to get to the one certain place where God is most likely to show up and “bring good tidings of great joy.” Or so we thought.]  

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other“Now what should we do? The Angels didn’t give us clear directions or next steps. Oh, well. I guess we’ll just stay here in the field tending our sheep. Dang it!  I really thought I experienced something divine a few seconds ago. Bummer.” Continue reading Relax Pastor, God Saves!

God’s Gourmet Chef

 

Today I want to share a personal update of sorts.

Pastors wear a lot of hats.

For example, today I was negotiating a lease with our landlord and consulting with our architect for our building project when I received a call from a person in rural Minnesota asking me to pray with him for his estranged family that lives in our area. Now I’m researching 1st century socio-political realities in light of our current political situation for a sermon, organizing a window washing project, and catching up on some admin tasks.

Yet, my favorite hat to wear as a pastor is what I’ll call a “gourmet chef of the Word.” You’ve heard of “Hell’s Kitchen”? Well, I serve in Heaven’s Kitchen cooking up a fresh variety of truth-saturated appetizers, soul nourishing meals, and irresistibly delicious desserts from God’s Word. With each recipe I try, my greatest hope is that you will “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8)! For I am all too aware that “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from God”

The weekly sermon is probably the “main dish” that I spend most time preparing. But Apostle Peter would be quick to say that in order to “grow up” in our faith we need more than one meal a week! We need to drink daily of the “pure spiritual milk” of God’s Word (1 Peter 2:2-3). A baby will die without multiple feedings a day on momma’s milk. Why do we try to get away with a one or two feedings a week in our spiritual growth?

So, I have begun preparing other smaller snacks for my congregation to nibble on between our Sunday gatherings. I share these goodies at my Daily Illumination blog. I am  currently offering deeper reflections on our 1 Peter study along with many other devotional writings. There’s nothing more rewarding than feeding others a good meal; and there’s nothing more disheartening than preparing a lavish dinner and having nobody show up.

(By the way, that’s how pastors sometimes feel when people don’t show up for worship: “Wow, I slaved away in this kitchen/study all week to prepare this tasty sermon just for you, and you don’t bother to get out of bed for it.”)

Let me tell you about a new dish to check out!  As you may have seen, I am experimenting with a new 5-minute “audio devotional” called The Mailbox Podcast. These are fun, spontaneous spiritual thoughts I share on my 1,000 foot walk to my mailbox and back. Its a chance for you to overhear my own thoughts as I attempt to find God’s truth penetrating the everyday moments of life. Its another way I’m trying to bring “Reports from the intersection of faith and life.” Listen to a sample here.

Now, let me share the more personal reason behind all my dishes I’m cooking up for you to enjoy. I discovered this summer that I had neglected my own soul’s cravings this past year and was not nourishing my own spirit. I was empty. Parched. Exhausted. Stressed. Burnt out. Distant from God.

In July and August the alarm bells were going off and I needed to re-evaluate my own life-rhythms and pastoral priorities. I stopped beginning my days by opening the laptop and answering emails. Instead I have devoted the first part of my day to quiet time with God and His Word. I am carving out larger portions of my weekly hours for study and prayer. As your pastor I cannot lead you places I’m not already going.

So, I have been seeing the big difference my daily quiet time or walks with God are having on my soul. I find myself inspired, hearing from God, seeing lessons in nature and my daily routine, and I just want to share them. That’s the real reason for the Mailbox Podcast….because even if nobody else listens to them, they are fueling my spirit and the process of making them is feeding my soul!

Do any of you journal? These are very much my “audio journal.” My grandkids will get ahold of them when I’m dead and gone, and hopefully enjoy a window into my life with God.

So, I do hope you’ll  subscribe to Daily Illumination and listen to the podcast as you drive to work, do the dishes, exercise, etc. Many of you have other places you go for spiritual nourishment each day — YouVersion reading plans, sermons, podcasts, etc. That’s great! I just invite everyone to find your own way of letting “the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16).

Regardless, I’ll keep my chef’s hat on and keep cooking up goodies for whoever wants to stop by for a snack or a meal!

Bon appetit! 

Gospeling in Corinth 3: God-Empowered

1-2You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God’s master stroke, I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.

3-5I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. But the Message came through anyway. God’s Spirit and God’s power did it, which made it clear that your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not to some fancy mental or emotional footwork by me or anyone else. (1 Cor 2:1-5)

The Bible is filled with freaked out, tongue-tied messengers commissioned with bringing God’s Word into risky situations.  Moses stammers when he speaks but is told to go to pharaoh. Jeremiah thinks he’s too young and inexperienced but that doesn’t get him off the hook. Paul had a reputation for being impressive in writing but awkward in person. (I can relate!)

Those of us pastors and speakers who have the privilege to share God’s Message with others regularly can gain reassurance from passages like this that remind us that even the great apostle had many moments of uncertainty and doubt. Do you find it encouraging to know that even Paul “felt totally inadequate” and “scared to death” at times?  I do.

Do you speak, preach or teach regularly to groups?  Do you go through deep valleys of uncontrollable self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in ministry?  This can be a weight that sinks your ministry under the waters of despair, or it can be the thing that drives you to become more dependent on God’s power in your ministry. Paul’s greatest legacy was his utter dependence on God to be his “strength in weakness.”  He believed with every bone in his body that the effectiveness of his ministry — his preaching of the Message — depended on God’s power.

But sharing the message of the gospel is not a task reserved for pastors and preachers.  We are all called to “give a reason for the hope that lies within us” and share this with others “with gentleness and respect.”  So, what pointers can we glean from Paul above as we strive to become God-empowered messengers of the Kingdom?

  • Don’t try to impress your hearers (v. 1). You’re not an entertainer, you’re a messenger entrusted with a life-changing Word to share.
  • Keep it simple (v. 2). Dressing up the truth to make it more appealing, funny or cute can lead people to grab onto the wrong thing. Keep it simple.
  • Keep Jesus at the center (v. 2). Make sure everything comes back to Jesus insofar as possible: “First Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did.”
  • Be real, be vulnerable (v. 3). Paul is not afraid to tell his flock of his personal doubts, fears and struggles. We shouldn’t either. Sincerity earns you credibility with your audience.
  • Depend on God (vv. 4-5). Always. Your message is only effective if the Holy Spirit works through it. “Let go and let God.”

This is hitting home for me right now as I labor to be a faithful and effective messenger of God’s Word. I thank God for choosing people like Paul, and inspiring his writings like this and placing them in the holy Scriptures to encourage ordinary people like me who are also “unsure of how to go about this, and feel totally inadequate.”

It’s a good thing it’s not really about us.  The ministry of the gospel is God-empowered ministry.

Gospeling in Corinth 1: God-Logic

I’m reposting a short series of reflections on Paul’s ministry in the pagan metropolis of Corinth and how he went about proclaiming the gospel and making disciples in a very unbelieving culture.

The apostle Paul writes (using The Message paraphrase):

“The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written,

I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots.

So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.

22-25While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.” (1 Cor 1:18-25)

How many of our current evangelistic and apologetic approaches today have as their main goal to make the Christian faith rational, sensible and culturally respectable?  When Paul settled into the busy, hustle and bustle pagan metropolis of Corinth in ancient Greece to begin sharing the message of Christ he seems to have taken a different approach. Continue reading Gospeling in Corinth 1: God-Logic

Life Verses 4: Hebrews 4:12

This series is expounding some of the Bible passages that have been most significant in my own faith journey. –JB

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

From my point of view, my “faith awakening” moment reading Acts in college was rather drastic and unusual. Oh, but there’s a long parade of people who had similar sudden “conversions” or awakenings in history! Augustine heard “take up and read” and opened Romans and was forever pricked by the Spirit. John Wesley describes his heart being “strangely warmed” as he heard the preface to Romans. The Ethiopian eunuch Philip encountered in Acts was immediately baptized along the road after he heard a passage from Isaiah unpacked. The church was born when Peter’s sermon resulted in thousands of people being “cut to the heart.”

For these reasons, one of my life verses that is most foundational for my thinking is Hebrews 4:12. This scripture makes very clear that God’s Word — and by that I mean the canonical Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments — has a life of its own. It’s alive and active. It’s not dried ink on a page. It’s dynamic and potent. I don’t believe its just the words themselves and the truths found within. I believe the Living God, the Holy Spirit, is at work in, around, above, below, and through the written and preached word of God. The Hound of Heaven is on the prowl in every casual devotional reading, in the half-hearted Scripture reading, in the best and worst of sermons expounding the Holy Text. Continue reading Life Verses 4: Hebrews 4:12