A Sermon (more or less): “Keeping the Christ in Us”

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This is, more or less, a sermon I preached on December 26th at my churches. This sermon is my ordination sermon, meaning this is the one I’m submitting to my annual conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry as part of my application to be ordained as an Elder. I wanted to share it here for any feedback anyone might want to share, but also because I want to share this message with as many people as possible. I hope you find inspiration and blessing in this attempt at articulating the gospel. – Jonathan

The text: Colossians 3:12-17 (NLT)

For many years, I have been hearing, reading, and otherwise seeing encouragement from various people and groups to “keep Christ in Christmas.” There are parts of this notion that I believe are valid, as the Christmas celebration has become more and more secular even among professing Christians, with many people choosing observances of the holiday that have little or nothing to do with the reason Christmas exists in the first place (spoiler alert: It’s when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday). Even Christians seem to have forgotten what Christmas is all about.

A heads up for next year: Next year, Christmas will fall on a Sunday, and I have no plans of calling off worship. I remember the last time Christmas was on Sunday, there were churches cancelling services because it was Christmas! Think of this for a moment: The very idea sounds obscene and silly, but it was happening. I was even berated in a Facebook group for pastors when I expressed that the pastors who cancelled their worship services because Christmas fell on a Sunday were misguided and missing the mark of what the day even means. I remember one of the members of the group referred to me as an “old fashioned and uncaring” person, followed by a… well, it was a name I won’t repeat here because he said I wasn’t being sensitive to the needs of families. But, you get the idea. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement.

The world we live in has, indeed, become more secular. I see a lot of hand wringing among people who worry that we are losing sight of God and that we’re “trying to take God out of everything.” First, know that none of us are that powerful. Trying to take God out of anything is like trying to command the oxygen out of this room right now. We simply can’t do it. Not to mention, God is where God wants to be and there’s nothing we can do about that. What’s more: The reason God often seems absent from our celebrations and our world is because we seem to forget about God. God hasn’t left, we simply fail to acknowledge him. We want others to “Keep Christ in Christmas” but what have we done to bring that about in our own right? As disciples of Jesus, keeping Christ in anything ought to start with us.

Here’s the thing: We can’t give the impression that we’re keeping Christ in Christmas unless we keep the teachings of Jesus and the ways of Jesus close to our hearts and act upon those teachings. If people can’t see Jesus in us, why should they be concerned with the true meaning of a holiday we care deeply about? If we want to truly keep Christ in Christmas, we must also keep Christ in ourselves, every single day. Keeping Christ in Christmas – and beyond – starts with us keeping the ways of Jesus on full display in our lives.

Christmas is vital to the Christian faith because the birth of Jesus brought about what I daresay is the most important aspect of the entire story, but one that we often overlook: It’s the incarnation. Dr. Ken Collins was one of my professors at Asbury and he spent a lot of time – at least two full class days – lecturing on the importance of God becoming flesh for us. Let me save you a lot time and expensive of going to seminary and boil down what Dr. Collins told us: Had the birth of Jesus not happened – that is, if God had not been born fully divine and fully human – then anyone who claimed that Jesus truly was the Messiah would have been wrong. That would have included the angels who appeared to the shepherds and proclaimed explicitly that the Messiah had been born and told the shepherds where they could find him. This much trouble would not have been brought forth for a lie so we know that Messiah came that night.

As Jesus was alive in the barn that night, and is still alive at the right hand of the Father today, so should Christ be alive in us today. Paul is writing his disciples in Colossae and saying just that. If you want to summarize his message, he’s telling the Colossian Christians that if they’re really saved by Jesus and have the Holy Spirit within them, this is how they act like it. I don’t believe that Paul is telling them – and us – to simply play nicely together, rather he’s saying that every single day we must choose to put Jesus fully on display in every aspect of our lives, from how we treat one another, how we talk, even how we think. We choose to show mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and to make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.

If Jesus is alive in you, then this is what it will look like to other people. This is how people will know that you have Jesus. Paul is listing these attributes and asking, “How well are you keeping the Christ in you?”

Paul’s metaphor of putting on clothing as a way of displaying one’s devotion to Jesus is a frequent instruction and here’s one reason why I believe he states this: What we wear is a choice. It was your choice to wear what you have on today, just as it was my choice to have this robe on while I preach this morning. You or I could have chosen differently but this is the choice we made.  Our faith is the same way: Every single day, we choose to put on Christ by daily accepting His grace and mercy and choosing to live out that faith by taking the teachings of Jesus seriously enough to live them out. The way we treat each other and people in general is a choice that we make every single day. Everyday, we can choose to treat each other the way the world expects – with distrust, thinking the worst about the other, and general disdain – or we can choose to live “love your neighbor as yourself.” Being a disciple is more than saying we go to church or having a fish symbol somewhere on our car; being a disciple is an intentional way of life. It’s an ethical and moral responsibility.

Conflict is going to arise, even within the church. I believe Paul is telling us to be on guard for that. In spite of any decision that we make to put on Jesus every morning, we are still going to have problems come up. Paul teaches us here that putting on Christ involves knowing that not all of us are on the same level and we are going to get plenty of things wrong. Lord knows I have my faults. Sometimes I can really put my foot in my mouth when I allow my fingers or my mouth to move faster than my brain and heart. We all have those times. We have a choice, however: When we are on the receiving end of offense, we can choose to hold that against the other person or we can choose to love, forgive, and understand that we all have faults. Paul tells us to choose love.

I like verse 17 the best of all in this passage: “And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus.” Every day, we are a representative of Jesus. People know us and know that we profess Jesus as our savior. The choice is ours as to how good of a representative we are of him. When we send representatives to Jackson or to Washington, we want them to remember where they come from and who they represent, not only to vote the way they believe is in our best interest, but also to represent us in the best way possible. As Christ’s representatives, we have somewhat of the same responsibility: Everyday we vote to uphold the gospel and follow it. Everyday, we represent Jesus and it’s up to us to give a good picture of Jesus to all people we meet. It may sound hyperbolic but one’s impression of Jesus could be based on you. What kind of impression do you want to make? Paul is letting us know that we have a responsibility to remember who we are, where we come from, and who we belong to. We belong to Jesus. Let’s represent him well.

The choice is ours: We can take on this moral code that Paul is teaching about here or we can do our own thing and say it’s of Jesus when it really isn’t. There has been much damage done to the church throughout the ages by people – well-meaning for the most part – who have made majorly bad decisions in God’s name. From judgment on who’s worthy to come to the table, rants about coffee cups and “happy holidays” to the more heinous examples of genocide, these people do not represent Jesus well at all. I saw something recently that said, “People say they want to keep Christ in Christmas but I’d settle for keeping Christ in Christians,” Ouch. How well have we represented Jesus lately? Have we put on Jesus of the Bible of an idol of our own making and own moral judgments? Would Jesus approve of how we treat our neighbors?

Let’s keep Christ in Christmas by putting on full display the Christ that’s within us. What’s more, let’s do it every single day. Let’s keep Christ all year ‘round.

Rescue the Lost Sheep

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A few years ago, I attended a ministry conference where the featured speaker made a statement that I often recall: “God is in the rescue business.” One of the occasions where I found myself thinking of this statement was in a conversation this morning with one of my friends, who said, “I don’t like churches because of my issues and hang ups and what happened to me growing up there. I’d absolutely feel safe in your church. And that’s what’s important. Taking in the lost sheep and helping them feel like they have a sturdy shelter again.” Honestly, a statement like this is something every Christian ought to long to hear, that someone has even an ounce of faith because of their witness. Especially as a pastor, I like knowing that someone has rekindled their faith because I allowed them the space to explore and safely ask questions and express doubts. As a shepherd, my job is to seek the lost sheep and bring them safely into the care of Jesus, the great shepherd.

Unfortunately, especially in the western world, Christians seem to have lost sight of the mission and of who God really is. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous, but for the sinner (Luke 5:32). Yet, this doesn’t stop many Christians from judging who is and is not worthy to attend their church. The idea often seems to be that people must all be alike and think alike in order to join a particular church. Here’s the thing, though: That’s entirely a modern construct. From its earliest days, the church – as in, the collection of people – was meant to be diverse in its make up and perspective. If you look at Acts 2 and other parts of the new testament that reveal the look of the early church, you’ll see that they were people from all sorts of places, walks of life, and outlooks. Some were totally convinced of Jesus being the Messiah while others had their doubts. Some were certain of how to express their faith from their Jewish background while others had never been Jewish and had no idea what was going on. Now, we want homogony in every facet and if a “sheep” wants to come to a particular pen who doesn’t fit with the other sheep, then that sheep is often ignored and sent back out into the world even more hurt and scarred than they were when they walked in.

In such churches, any sheep who does not look and think the same as the current sheep aren’t welcome.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) is a perfect example of what evangelism is supposed to be. The Pharisees aren’t happy that Jesus has been associating with “tax collectors and other notorious sinners” because, as the Pharisees saw it, they were not worthy of being loved by God. They had decided that these “sinners” were not welcome. Jesus uses the example of a shepherd who tends a flock of 100 sheep leaving 99 to find the one who wandered away and brings the lost sheep back. There, the sheep who wandered off and was malnourished, dehydrated, and injured can be cared for and healed. Jesus closes out this lesson by saying, “In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” (Luke 15:7 NLT)

This is the job that Jesus wants His people to carry out: Find the lost sheep and bring them home, even if the sheep don’t quite “fit.” Bishop James Swanson once said in a sermon, “Being together does not mean being and thinking alike.”

Our job is to go out, find the lost sheep, and bring them to Jesus to be made whole and healed. It doesn’t matter what we believe is “wrong” with them or how different they are, it’s still our job to show them to the rescuer. We don’t get to pick and choose who comes to the table because it’s not ours; the table belongs to Jesus.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one,
Lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful,
Jesus will save.

“Rescue the Perishing,” a hymn by Fanny Crosby

We Don’t Get to Choose Who Receives Compassion

compassionIf you didn’t know, I’m a former paramedic. During my time on the ambulance, I responded to my share of overdose calls and I also expressed by share of frustration over them. Part of the reason was that I was simply following the example of my peers – I was expected to deride and offhandedly insult people who had overdosed so that’s what I did. One day I realized how wrong that attitude was when I responded to an overdose call and had to administer the drug Narcan. The house I responded to was where the patient lived with her husband and two young children. The husband expressed to me that he had been trying to get her to seek help for addiction but that so far his efforts were ignored by her. While I was working on his wife, I remember him saying “I just hope she gets help before it’s too late.” This with the backdrop of two young children who had to witness their mother almost die right in front of them because addiction had sunk its sharp teeth into her was used by God to convict me of my attitude and to change my heart.

EMS responders have a moral and an ethical (and when on duty legal) to render the best care possible to all regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they live, or the choices they made. None of the matters. EMTs and paramedics practice medicine and are not supposed to base their care on the circumstances of the patient. If someone calls for help, EMS is supposed to respond and is supposed to render the best possible care they are able, period, full stop. For the most part, in spite of some who feel that only certain patients deserve the best care (these providers have no business in EMS and should be stripped of their patches, but that’s another rant), EMS responders give excellent care and indeed save lives.

So imagine my shock, disappointment, and anger when I read about an elected official who wants EMS providers to pick and choose who deserves to live simply because of their poor choices.

Dan Picard (hopefully no relation to Jean-Luc) is a city councilman in Middletown, Ohio and wants EMS units to stop responding to calls for help involving opioid overdoses (story). He says that these calls are too expensive and that the city can not afford it. Mr. Picard is also in favor of issuing a court summons to overdose patients and requiring them to perform community service to compensate the city for saving his/her life. Here’s what Mr. Picard said he wants to do:

I want to send a message to the world that you don’t want to come to Middletown to overdose because someone might not come with Narcan and save your life. We need to put a fear about overdosing in Middletown.

That statement drips with something but compassion is not that with which it is dripping.

The councilman wants to punish people for seeking help for a condition which could very easily kill them (the fact that they took the drug is irrelevant). This plan is illegal, immoral, and unethical but let’s say it was implemented. The city would have a much larger problem: A sudden influx of overdose deaths because people are afraid to call for help for fear of being branded a criminal. I feel that would have a much worse effect on their budget than administering a bunch of Narcan (in addition to the moral, legal, and ethical considerations). Addiction is a disease (this is not up for debate – medical science proves this) and should be treated as a disease, not as a criminal offense.

For Christians, there are other issues to consider.

Whether we are talking about the medical field or anything else, we don’t get to pick and choose to whom we will show compassion and mercy. For Christians, compassion is supposed to be our way of life. Compassion is what Christians are supposed to be known for! From the very beginning, God was setting the example of showing compassion. We read in Genesis of the fall of humanity when Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to eat. He could have killed them where they stood but instead of showed compassion on them by making them animal skins to cover their newly discovered nudity.

Throughout scripture, we see other examples of compassionate action and instruction that as we have shown compassion we should show compassion. We read the words of Paul: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NLT). We also see an account in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus happened upon some blind men who cried out to him for their sight. This was his response: “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 NIV).

While we don’t have to be Jesus, we are called to be like Jesus (Ephesians 5:1-2). Jesus did not pick and choose to whom he showed mercy and compassion when they were crying out. He freely showed compassion. If we are Christians, this is part of our calling. We do not get to pick and choose to whom we show compassion. We are called to be compassionate to the entire world.

I have no idea what, if any, faith Mr. Picard claims but I feel that he would do himself and his citizens well to follow the example of Jesus rather than the example of a group of politicians who do not believe in showing mercy to the poor and marginalized.

We all would.

Prosperity at What Price?

ZomboMeme 09052017204148“[When I die] if I leave behind me ten pounds . . . you and all mankind [may] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.” – John Wesley

One of the great things about subscribing to satellite radio is that I have access to all sorts of music. I can listen to anything from acoustic music you might hear in Starbucks to Broadway show tunes. Additionally, I have access to several channels of news and other information. There are even several religious channels where I can listen to programming from contemporary Christian and southern gospel music to sermons and talk shows dedicated to faith.

One such channel is the Joel Osteen channel.

Now, let me stop right here and issue a preface: I know that a lot of people find inspiration from people like Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Joyce Meyer. I have to admit, they do sometimes give some nuggets of truth in their writings and messages. If you fall into this category, know that my intent is not to offend you, but you should also know that the body of their work is very much contrary to orthodox Christian teaching. This is an opinion piece based on my opinions and convictions. Please know that that is the place where I am coming from.

When I drive to and from Asbury, I have anywhere from one to two hours to kill and I flip through the channels (when safe to do so, of course). Tuesday I landed on Osteen’s channel and a message that he gave at Lakewood Church was playing. I decided to give it a listen to find out just why so many people were drawn to him and similar prosperity preachers. I listened, found myself groaning and wanting to throw things a few times, and shaking my head. They played another one and I thought it sounded very similar to the one I had just heard.

Yesterday I went to town to run an errand and my radio was still on the channel. Yet another message was playing – yes, a different one than either of the previous two I had heard – and I again thought that it sounded very similar to the ones I heard on Tuesday. It was then that I realized what the secret is. Allow me to give you a run-down of the anatomy of a prosperity gospel “sermon:”

A funny story
A scripture that is taken way out of context
Another story
Perhaps another scripture that is taken out of context (which was not named)
A closing story
Sprinkled throughout is some sort of “you can do it!” phrase which is repeated over and over.

As I mentioned above, an occasional truth was expounded but the essential point of all of the message was that God wants to bless us with material wealth and all we have to do is believe that we can receive this wealth. More than anything, what was proclaimed was a belief in oneself as opposed to a message of rebirth, transformation, and sanctification through faith and obedience to God.

In other words, the prosperity gospel treats God as nothing but a means to an end involving the wealth and success of this world.

Very little of what I heard was kingdom minded. It tells the hearer nothing more than what they want to hear – that they are special, that God wants them to be wealthy, that God wants them to be successful, and all one has to do is have faith and God will give them these things.

The prosperity gospel is a gospel of self, not of Jesus Christ.

Jesus spoke about money more than any other subject. One of my favorite verses that we should all use to check ourselves is, “19 Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NLT) A couple of verses later, Jesus says this: “24 No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Matthew 6:24 NLT)

Jesus makes clear that the pursuit of money and stuff should not be our number one priority. Note that Jesus did not say that having wealth in of itself is a sin, but he did say that we are to be good stewards of our money and to be generous with it (see Matthew 19:21). Indeed, making money into an idol and basing our worth in God’s eyes on the size of our bank accounts can actually be detrimental to our souls. If we place money on the same level as God or have the audacity to somehow think that holiness is measured by wealth, we are guilty of idolatry.

While prosperity preachers may tickle your ears and help you to feel better about yourself, know that there is little if any interest in the condition of your soul. I actually encourage you to follow some advice that Joel Osteen gives at the end of his messages: Find a church where the Bible is believed and proclaimed. Don’t go to a church that proclaims God as simply a means to material wealth, but one where you will find out the good news that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again.

Remember: Christ died so that we can have eternal life, not earthly wealth.


Cultural Christians

widetableDuring my first break from class today, I found an article published by The Babylon Bee that, while a parody, also had a ton of truth to it. If you’re not familiar with the Bee, this is a blog that lampoons the most cliche aspects of Christianity, particularly to the culture of Christianity. In this instance, the article is entitled “Local Pastor Longs For Good Old Days When America Pretended To Be A Christian Nation.” Here is a quote:

“’I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit,’ Reverend Frank Baxter of Garden Falls United Methodist Church reportedly lamented to parishioners at Wednesday’s potluck. ‘On Sundays, Americans used to close their businesses, shine up their shoes, and wear their very best clothes. Sure, they were sin-laden enemies of the Almighty and objects of His wrath, but at least they had the common decency to act like they weren’t.’”

While this is a completely made up statement by a completely made up figure, the sentiment expressed is all too often heard. I have heard similar statements from a variety of people, lay and clergy. When such statements are made, I think it’s a sign that the person saying it has missed something major that is occurring within our churches and within the Christian faith. First, it should be pointed out that congregations should not base their effectiveness solely on attendance figures. It’s not merely about numbers.

The “decline” we are witnessing in American Christianity is actually the death throes of cultural Christianity. This is a cutting away of the dead branches from the vine.

Jesus used such an analogy in John 15 when he told the parable of his being the vine, we (his followers/disciples) being the branches, and the Father being the gardener. Jesus makes it clear that the branches that do not produce fruit are cut off while the ones that do produce fruit are pruned and tended to. The fruits include such things as patience, love, kindness, works… all of this in response to our faith.

Simply showing up to church because “it’s what we do” (in other words, going through the motions) does not generally produce spiritual fruit.

Jesus did warn of the dangers of being a “lukewarm” Christian. John of Patmos recorded these words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea:

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Revelation 3:15-17 (NLT)

I believe that the church is going to be much stronger than she is now. Contrary to what many of us want to believe, this is not all about numbers. This is about the discipleship fruit that is produced by believers. Cultural Christianity contributes nothing to the well-being of one’s soul because simply doing what is expected is not going to cause one to be made new. Yes, the church hit its heyday in the 1950s in terms of numbers, but this was also largely a cultural phenomenon. One was expected to go to church. One could lose business relationships, elections, and other standing for either not attending a church or by not attending the “right” church. Many used Christianity as a means to an end, thus many of these cultural Christians had no faith whatsoever. I won’t presume to judge the destination of their souls, but I will say that scripture is clear on the consequences of unbelief and non-repentance. If one is merely using their church as a means to an end, what does this say about their faith? (I understand this is strictly between God and the person, but the truth of the matter remains)

If one is merely using their church as a means to an end, what does this say about their faith? (I understand this is strictly between God and the person, but the truth of the matter remains)

The dying away of cultural Christianity is actually a good thing. Those who remain faithful will be proven to be the ones who truly love God, truly follow Christ, and who want to go out and make disciples. I actually welcome the time where not everyone attends worship or believes in God. I would rather someone truly believe because they have faith rather than claim to believe because they feel that claiming a faith will benefit them somehow.

Let’s remember that faith is not about numbers, bur rather it’s about transormation and dedication.

Addict Shaming is not OK

Today there has been a picture circulating on Facebook, through major media outlets, and elsewhere. You may be wanting to say, “Yeah, yeah, as we call it around here: ‘Friday.'” This picture is something complete different and one that I refuse to share because I think it’s disgusting. This picture is of a man and a woman in a car who appear to be unconscious. There is also a young child in the back seat. The post that East Liverpool, Ohio PD shared on their Facebook page – which includes pictures of the couple unconscious in their car – indicates that the couple had apparently overdosed on heroine and allegedly drove to their son’s school to pick him up. They were eventually placed in the care of EMS and transported to the hospital after receiving “several rounds” of Narcan. The affidavit the officer wrote indicates that they may be charged with a crime but it’s not clear what that crime might be.

The picture has ignited a firestorm of debate about addiction and about whether shaming addicts is OK. Personally, I find it disgusting. Sometimes, against my better judgement, I just can’t help myself and I have to leave a comment about an article on media social media pages. When the Lexington Herald-Leader ran the story, I indicated on their post that I felt that shaming addicts was disgusting and does nothing to solve the problem. Several people have disagreed with me, as seems to be the case in such situations.

Simply, I don’t believe that it’s moral, ethical, or Christ-like for such to happen. We show a grave disregard for God’s children when we condone such actions. Perhaps as a summary of my comments and why I have come to these conclusions, I will share the final comment that I am leaving on the H-L’s post. I hope it will help to explain further why I feel like the East Liverpool PD has performed a great injustice (not to mention acting unprofessionally and unethically) by starting this.

I will respond to both of you (two people who had challenged my opinion). But first, you need to understand where I’m coming from. I’ve been a paramedic for nearly eight years and worked in a few different places both in Kentucky and Mississippi. I’m also serving as a pastor in Powell County which has one of the biggest drug problems in the nation. In short, I see it everyday. I live right in the midst of it just out my front door. I talk to people. I’ve treated people. That’s the thing: These are people, God’s children. We have to remember that.

The children should absolutely be protected. I’m not saying that one should not face consequences when they drive high or otherwise mistreat their kids. Those crimes should absolutely be dealt with. But simply locking an addict up for a while and calling it good doesn’t help. Arguments can be made that addiction is a choice but, medically and spiritually speaking, it’s a disease and should be treated as one.

Treatment, rehab, counseling, compassion, mercy… Those kinds of things are what help addicts. Parading them on Facebook does nothing to solve the problem. All it shows is a lack of regard for human dignity. The problem can only be tackled as one would tackle any disease.

The reasons one becomes an addict are varied but some things that seem common in my experience are lack of education, unemployment, and poverty. If we want to tackle the root causes of addiction we must fight those things. But I do acknowledge that only God may have the answers to those problems.

In John 8 we find an account of woman who was to be stoned for adultery. Jesus intervened and (more or less) said this: Let him without sin throw the first stone. I don’t know about anyone else but I have no right to throw stones. Yes, crimes have consequences and rightly so. But addiction does not get cured in jail. We have to show mercy and we have to actually help these people. Otherwise, we simply make it worse.

Sermon – Half Truths: God Won’t Give You More than You Can Handle

Continuing the series based on Adam Hamilton’s Half Truths, today I talked about the popular platitude that suggests that God will shield us from more life drama than we can handle. Anyone who has ever had a nervous breakdown knows that this isn’t true. While I didn’t outright address it in the course of the sermon, mental health issues are often looked at as a lack of faith or a sign of sin in one’s life. I want to emphasize that this is not true! Our problems don’t come from God. I hope you will receive a blessing from this sermon and know the way that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is often understood is not quite accurate. A note: I spend some time talking about my battle with anxiety and depression so be warned.

Half Truths: God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 28h, 2016

1 Corinthians 10:1-14 (NLT)
I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. 2 In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. 3 All of them ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

6 These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, 7 or worship idols as some of them did. As the Scriptures say, “The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.” 8 And we must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, causing 23,000 of them to die in one day.

9 Nor should we put Christ  to the test, as some of them did and then died from snakebites. 10 And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death. 11 These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age.

12 If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. 13 The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.

14 So, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I have heard this statement many times and I’m sure we have all said this statement at some point in our lives. One of the times I can recall most vividly hearing this phrase was about ten years ago. I was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana where I was working for one of the radio stations in town. The station wasn’t doing great. Advertising was down and some tough decisions had to be made by the management of the company that owned the station. Unfortunately, the status of my employment was one of the hard decisions which was made. I went home and tried to process everything that had occurred. I had lost a job that I mostly loved, lost the opportunity to work with people who I considered my family away from home and I was also faced with the reality that I had bills to pay. Obviously I was uncertain and upset.

I finally reached out to the leader of the small group that I was part of through the church I was attending at the time. Mike was fairly wise and I trusted him to give me advice. I left a voicemail and eventually he called me back to hear the story. After he offered to pray for me and my situation, which he did. And as he was about to hang up he sprang the Half Truth on me: “Remember that God will never give you more than you can handle.” I tried to remember Mike’s words as things progressed. I soon found another job and eventually I ended up moving back to Mississippi where I was so stressed by a lot of things that I had a mental breakdown. I was overloaded and simply could not cope. When this occurred Mike’s words seemed like utter hogwash.

Obviously these words are said with good intent. But in that instance, I found out the hard way that this Half Truth simply did not stand up to the practical test. I had more on my plate than I could handle. My ability to cope with everything going on at the time, both tangibly and mentally, were just too much for me to handle and I hit my psychological and spiritual rock bottom. There was a part of me that blamed God because I felt like He was punishing me because, in my mind, he had broken a promise made in scripture. I had more than I could handle and it took me a while to recover from my issues, my anger, and my crisis of faith which happened on top of everything else. I was a mess, a hot mess at that.

We want to think that nothing bad will ever happen to us or that we will never have more stress on us than we could conceivably handle. To state it simply, the idea that God will shield us from more trouble, stress, or drama than we can handle just is not true. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is often cited as the basis for the idea that God will somehow not allow us to be stressed out beyond what we can cope with. A plain reading of the scripture, however, does not reveal such a saying. This passage is not even dealing with everyday stress – more on on that in a moment. I will daresay that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is one of the most misquoted and misunderstood verses in the entire Bible. It’s one of those verses that we might think says one thing but really says another. This is also an example of how cherry picking scripture without regard to context is simply a poor way to read God’s word.

I think it’s safe to say that every single one of us have experienced times in our lives when we felt that the world was caving in all around us. We have all experienced times when we could not handle one more thing on our plates or we might just snap. I have some good news for you if you have ever felt that way: You’re not alone. Life teaches us that things are going to come at us, sometimes one thing after another, and that we will indeed, at some point, have more on us than we can handle. Such is part of the human condition. As I have mentioned before our troubles do not come from God. Let me say that again: The bad stuff in life, whether we’re talking about a major tragedy or even the everyday stresses of life, do not come from God. God does not give us troubles. But what he does is be present in those moments, ready to comfort, provide mercy, and healing to our souls. He loves us that much and he wants us to cling to him.

So what is it that Paul is talking about and what is the truth behind this Half Truth? Borrowing heavily from Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths in addition to my own study, I will explore that.

The short version of the story is this: Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about sparing us from stress. Paul was on one of his missionary journeys when he established Christianity in the Roman city of Corinth around 51 AD. Today we call Las Vegas “Sin City” but I would argue that Corinth is the original sin city. If you were a citizen of Corinth during this time and you went to buy meat, you may likely be eating meat from an animal which was sacrificed at one of the numerous pagan temples around the city. While some cities have a gas station or a Starbucks on every corner, Corinth had pagan temples on every corner. Within the walls of the temples occurred pagan worship. What we would call sexual immorality was one of the ways in which the Corinthian pagans worshiped and this even occurred within the walls of the temples. The reputation of the Corinthians was so pervasive that if someone was considered to be fast and loose with their morals they were said to be “living like a Corinthian.”

The new Christians of Corinth were trying to overcome these old habits but, as the old saying goes, old habits die hard. The temptation to give in to these pagan ways were literally everywhere they went. The could not escape the pagan temples because there were so many. They could not escape the temptations of the pagan ways because this was also all around them. By using the struggle of the ancient Israelites as an example, Paul was reminding the Corinthian Christians that their giving in to these temptations had spiritual and moral consequences. And then he states in verse 13, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.”

Paul was giving the Corinthians encouragement and a good reminder that sin has consequences. He gave them an example of their spiritual ancestors (remember that he was dealing with mostly Gentiles). He was also reminding them that when God sees that we are tempted to commit some kind of sinful act, he will give us a way out even if it’s reminding us of who we are and whose we are. Do we always make the choice to take the way out and therefore not sin? Of course not! But it’s there and God provides it.

Paul was not saying that God tempts us but only a little bit, he was saying that God provides us a way out of the situation when we are tempted. But here’s what we really need to know about this verse of scripture: Paul was also not saying that God will not allow us to have more stress, chaos, and tragedy than we can handle. Unfortunately, these things will happen. But here is what we can count on from God: He will be present in the stress, chaos, and tragedy. He will be ready to provide relief. He will be with us through the storm. One of the things Paul is emphasizing here is not our human will prevailing but instead of God’s faithfulness. God is faithful to us in the midst of life.

Dr. Ben Witherington, a prolific author, theologian, and professor of New Testament at Asbury uses this phrase a lot and, as I like it, I do too: “A text without a context is merely a pretext for whatever you want it to be.” This is the case in 1 Corinthians 10:13. When we pick and choose bible verses and try to make them fit an idea that we have about God or perhaps just an idea that we like because it sounds nice, we miss the greater message of God’s word. We really do a disservice to ourselves and to our discipleship when we take what we consider to be the best parts and leave the rest. The result is a Half Truth.

Unfortunately, God does not promise that he won’t allow us to have more from life than we can handle. God does, however, promise that he is with us. When someone is struggling, I want us to remember that God is with them and us. Perhaps next time we want to use this Half Truth we can say something like, “God has not give this trouble to you but he is with you and loves you. And so do I.” Let’s turn this Half Truth into a whole truth. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Amen.

Being a Strong Witness

92b8c584afb491d0c703b3ddc3244926What does it mean to be a strong witness for Christ?

What does it really mean to be a strong witness for Christ?

Throughout my life I have often heard preachers, youth ministers, evangelists and countless others encouraging their hearers to bear a strong witness. How does one do this? Often a “strong Christian witness” is thought of in these ways:

  • Being able to quote the right scripture at the right time and completely from memory
  • Displaying symbols such as crosses, the “Jesus fish” and other images
  • Being very vocal about what they God are is against
  • Explaining everything under the sun as “God’s will” (especially tragedy)
  • Vocally and passionately articulate their political views (“God’s on my side here!”)

Now, let me be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things so long as they are done in a spirit of charity and grace as opposed to one of domination and attempting to belittle someone or their views. I believe that bearing a strong witness for Christ involves much more than our political leanings and the stickers displayed on our cars.

Being a strong witness for Christ is a lifestyle which must be lived, not one that is merely talked about.

For my Missional Formation class today, I have been reading a keynote speech that was given by Dr. Christine Pohl at the Wesleyan Theological Society’s annual meeting in 2006. One of the takeaways I have gained is that simply being hospitable can bear a strong witness for Christ. But what is hospitality? It’s more than cooking or offering our friends a place to sit. Hospitality means we have to open our tables and our witness to everyone, not just those we love or who have something to offer. From the transcript of Dr. Pohl’s speech:

Based on the biblical passages of Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 14:12-14, Christians were expected to offer hospitality to those most likely to be overlooked, anticipating that it might be Jesus they were welcoming. According to Jesus’ instructions, when followers welcomed people to their tables, it should be the poor and infirm, those who seemed to have the least to offer.

Perhaps one way to look at this is that we should extend hospitality to everyone we come into contact with. That doesn’t mean we have to invite everyone over for dinner but it does mean making space for people to meet Christ through us right where they are. We can not be brash and demeaning in our witness; if we think that such an attitude will win anyone to Christ we are delusional at best and just plain crazy at worst. Instead, we are to show everyone a generous and loving spirit of grace. We have been given much grace therefore we should be quick to give it ourselves. I know that I don’t always make God happy but I also know that God loves me and forgives me so long as my trust is in Christ. Just as God is quick to love and slow to anger, we should be likewise (see James 1:19-27).

Be hospitable. Be loving. Above all – through your everyday living – offer Christ to everyone you encounter regardless of who they are, how much you disagree with them or what they lack.


Sermon: “What’s The Fuss?”

Shiloh-UMC-logo-final-webI wrote and preached this sermon last week at Shiloh as a reminder of what we celebrate on Thursday (Thanksgiving) as well as a reminder of why we will celebrate Christmas in December. It’s all about perspective. I incorporated some material from the sermon I preached at the community Thanksgiving service at Stanton Baptist Church last week. I had several people tell me that it served as a great reminder of the true purpose for the holidays as well as a means of centering in preparation for the craziness. I hope you find a blessing from reading this sermon (it’s not perfect and I did end up throwing in a couple more thoughts while I preached but, more or less, here it is).

In Christ,

“What’s The Fuss?”
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
November 22, 2015

John 18:33-37 (NRSV) – Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Today is one of the days on the church calendar called “Christ the King” Sunday, which is when we remember and celebrate the kingship of Jesus. Next week we will begin the season of Advent which is a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ. It is extremely easy to forget that the “stuff” of the season is not why we are celebrating. The reason we celebrate is the one who would be born in a stable and grow up to be the greatest king the world has ever known. So today, I want us to spend this time together remembering what all the fuss is about.

We have all been there. Let me tell you about one of the experiences of holiday craziness I witnessed. I was a teenager and we arrived at my grandmother’s house early on Thanksgiving. We actually arrived earlier than normal because my grandmother had called and said she was overwhelmed and needed some help getting the thanksgiving meal prepared. We arrived and Moo, as we called her, looked flustered. I’m don’t remember exactly what happened but she had some sort of mishap in the kitchen and also had found out that a few more people were coming than she had expected. I do remember her saying this: “I just don’t understand why I go through all this fuss.”

I remembered that incident and those words recently when I was working on an assignment for one of my classes at Asbury. The assignment was to write a column for a church newsletter about the Christmas season called “What’s The Fuss about Christmas” in which the object was to remind church members of the purpose of the holiday season, specifically why we are supposed to be celebrating Christmas. We tend to ponder that a lot as we go through all the hustle and bustle of the year. We forget about the main purpose because it gets lost in all of the stuff we are expected to do. We wonder why we should even bother with preparing a feast for Thanksgiving and why we go to the trouble of decorating for Christmas and making such a big deal out of things like the Cantata or any number of other things.

It’s obvious to state that the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving is because we want to take some time to give thanks to God for seeing us through, for providing for our needs and simply to thank him for loving us. Just as the pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock did, we give thanks. The fuss is worth it because it is a correction to our egos to remember how blessed we are and how grateful we should be for even the smallest things. For example: When was the last time you gave a quick word of thanks to the man who picks up your trash so that you can live in a safe and healthy house? When was the last time you thanked the clerk at the grocery store? When was the last time you thanked God for even the things that make us frustrated like our computers, TVs and cell phones? Giving thanks helps us to keep our priorities in line with God’s will and is an important correction to our egos.

Does anyone remember the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special? I love Charlie Brown because I can relate to him in so many ways, namely how he often undertakes things with the best of intentions but he just ends up making a mess of it. In the Thanksgiving special Peppermint Patty invites herself to Charlie Brown’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and then Lucy and Franklin are invited by Patty. Charlie Brown finds himself in a mess because he is supposed to go to his grandmother’s for a meal with his family. Linus convinces Charlie Brown that he can have two Thanksgiving meals and to prepare one for him and his friends. So Charlie Brown sets out to prepare a feast but it’s not exactly traditional. When the gang sits down for their meal, Linus leads them in a prayer and then the food service begins.

By the time it’s all said and done each kid ends up with an ice cream sundae, two slices of buttered toast, and a handful each of pretzel sticks, popcorn, and jelly beans. Peppermint Patty is not happy and has some harsh words for Charlie Brown, who leaves the table in shame. Peppermint Patty gets a reminder that she invited herself over; eventually she apologizes to Charlie Brown. All ends up well because the gang all end up being able to go to Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s house to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Does this kind of sound like what happens at your house around Thanksgiving? We prepare a meal and someone complains. Then you start to wonder why you even undertook this project in the first place. Thanksgiving is a good reminder that it’s not about us. It’s not about the turkey, the sides or the parades. Thanksgiving, at its core, is a reminder that we should be thankful to God His provision, his protection and for his love. It’s out of this love hat he came to us in the form of a baby who from his birth was the great king that had been long expected and excitedly anticipated. That’s the fuss about Thanksgiving. The fuss is we give thanks not for how we have gained but for what God has given.

Although Thanksgiving is our next holiday and I certainly believe in taking the one at a time I know we have all been thinking about our Christmas plans. As a church we have been practicing for the upcoming cantata and I have been planning our Advent sermons and some other special times of worship that you will hear more about soon. I hope that you are looking forward to Advent as we prepare for Christmas. Even more, I hope you’re looking forward to Christmas as a time that we celebrate the birth of Christ our savior. But I know that Christmas and the preparation for it causes a lot of stress. Perhaps you’re even now asking, “What’s all the fuss about Christmas and why is it worthy of my effort?”

The fuss about Christmas is something called the incarnation. Just in case you don’t know, what I’m referring to is the coming of God in the form of Jesus Christ. The incarnation is vital to our salvation story because without it, there would be no point. Without the coming of the long promised messiah there would be no need for us to celebrate Good Friday or Easter or really to have much hope because we would still be expected to keep the commandments and the other rules and such found in the Old Testament to the letter. Oh, we could repent but in order for our sins to be atoned for there has to be blood spilled. Again, we can look through the Old Testament to see all of the ways in which atonement for our sins could be achieved and none of it is pleasant or pretty. From the very beginning, God planned to do something to reveal Himself to us and to bring us once and for all His grace and mercy.

The incarnation is how God reveals himself to us. You see, Jesus was born just as any other baby was. The only difference was that this baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit and therefore was divine. He was God, yet he was also fully human. John 1:14 says, “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” The incarnation of Christ is vital and even is one of the central tenants of our faith.

Let me put it this way: As with anything else, certain conditions have to be met in order for something to work. In order for a light bulb to work properly, there has to be a power source, wires to transmit the electricity, a socket connected to the wires and that acts as a way for the lightbulb to, in turn, be powered by the electricity and to shine bright. A switch is also helpful so that the power can be turned on or off (and so we can sleep at night). Without any of these things, the lightbulb will not be illuminated and we are left in the dark.

Jesus works he same way. Without His being born like you and I were, without Him having lived among us, without His having taught, healed and performing miracles, without Him having been nailed to a cross, died and then being resurrected three days later, God’s work to reconcile us to Him would not have been completed. It is a wonderful thing when you really think about it. God came to the world as a human being, grew up from a tiny baby, and lived among us. He did all of this to draw us closer to Him by drawing closer to us. Without His coming and living among us as one of us, this mission would not have been fulfilled.

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis wrote: The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation. There is no question in Christianity of arbitrary interferences just scattered about. It relates not a series of disconnected raids on Nature but the various steps of a strategically coherent invasion—an invasion which intends complete conquest and “occupation.” The fitness, and therefore credibility, of the particular miracles depends on their relation to the Grand Miracle; all discussion of them in isolation from it is futile.

That’s what the fuss about Christmas is all about. Jesus Christ, being born in a stable after being turned away from proper housing. A tiny baby who, at a young age, had to flee to Egypt with his human parents to see refuge from a plot to kill him. A child who would grow up to teach in the temple and overturn the stranglehold the temple elite had over the people. This divine man who would perform miracles, demonstrate mercy, and teach us the way. It’s all about Jesus who would do what no other king in history would willingly do: Lay down his life for the entire world, including people who were not even born yet. And he would go on to cement his title as the king of kings by being raised from the dead on the third day. All of this is out of God’s abundant love for us! All of this so that all who believe in him could be restored and reconciled to God as well as enjoy eternal life with him rather than suffer apart from him.

As we go through these next few busy weeks, let us remember that the fuss is ultimately about God. The fuss is about being thankful for God’s love, both in how he provides for our needs so richly and for his becoming human so that we can be healed of our sins. May we remember that the fuss is about the ultimate ruler, the King of Kings whose kingdom includes us. May we remember that the fuss we are making is a fuss to make much of Jesus.


Who likes talking about sin? No one that I know of actually enjoys talking about sin. Well, no one likes talking about their own sin. We love talking about the sins of other people; maybe we just like talking about other people in general.

I’m getting ready to preach a sermon on Sunday at Shiloh about our belief in the forgiveness of sins. As i have been pondering that message, I think not so much about what is and isn’t sin but rather I’ve been thinking more about grace. Why you ask? Because, as an old hymn proclaims:

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

It’s not uncommon for us to talk about all these “sinners” out in the world but we don’t talk enough about grace and forgiveness that God grants to His children through Jesus Christ. One thing that my fast from Facebook has helped me to understand that many posts – many of my own if I’m being honest – are judgmental. We love to point out the shortcomings – real and perceived – of other people. We love to talk about certain people or groups of people who are bound for Hell, all in an attempt to show off our own righteousness. We attempt to show the world that we are such good Christians that we are willing to condemn people who sin. Many of us think that our “fire insurance” (a term I’ve actually seen and heard) gives us a license to condemn.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that it’s wrong for us to want to remove the speck from someone else’s eye when we have a plank in our own. In other words, we have no right to judge someone for their sin when we have our own skeletons in our closet to deal with. It is not our job to condemn people for their sins when we are sinners ourselves.

You can’t fight sin with sin.

Southland Church is a multi-campus congregation in Lexington, KY and they broadcast their services on one of the local TV stations. I decided to record their service out of curiosity and as I have been watching this sermon I have found good food for thought. Basically we have three common responses to sin: One one side we judge; on the other we join; and somewhere in the middle we remain joyful in Christ. The right response to sin is actually pretty simple: We are to be light in the darkness of this world. Light drives away darkness.

Trying to fight darkness with darkness only brings more darkness.

I know that some might misunderstand me and think that I’m advocating Christians being weak and “tolerating” sin. On the contrary: I believe we should take action. I don’t believe that action should be in the form of protests, revolts or fire and brimstone sermons on the courthouse steps. Instead, we overcome evil with good by our living. Yes, we take action and instead of proclaiming condemnation for everyone except ourselves we instead proclaim the gospel by loving as Christ loves the world.

“Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” Romans 12:21 (CEB).

Just some thoughts on my mind this afternoon. Perhaps this will take shape better by Sunday. 🙂