The Lost Sheep

The sermon I preached at Grace Community Church (Souderton, PA) on August 2nd, 2015.

“Christ’s consuming love compels us to prioritize Christ’s mission to seek and save the lost.” LISTEN

Luke 15:1-7 

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Atonement Fully Made for Us

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on July 9th, 2015.

Christ made full atonement for the sins of His people.LISTEN

Ephesians 2:4-10

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Servants of the Gospel

The sermon I preached at King of Grace Church (Haverhill, MA) on May 17th, 2015, when I was ordained as a pastor.

“God makes gospel ministers according to His grace, to prepare the church, by preaching Christ crucified.” LISTEN

Ephesians 3:7-13

7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages inGod who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

Shadows in the Night

Shadows in the Night, Bob Dylan, Columbia, 2015

Buy CD

Shadows in the Night is Bob Dylan’s 36th studio album, and consists of ten covers of Tin Pan Alley standards that were popularized by Frank Sinatra.

The emotive orchestra and Sinatra’s silky crooning are gone, but the weeping pedal steel and Dylan’s sandpaper vocals embody the haunting loneliness of this rueful reminiscence.

The first track, “I’m A Fool To Want You,” is a lament of a foolish lover who loves someone who will not remain faithful. The mournful modulation of the pedal steel guitars, the gentle caresses on the acoustic, and the softly bowed string bass convey the despondency of the song.

Similarly, “The Night We Called It A Day” and “Autumn Leaves” are melancholic odes to the lover who has left. Heartbreak and loss are overarching themes of this album.

My favorite number on the album, “Stay With Me,” is a heartfelt prayer, sung with confessional solemnity. The wistful tone of Dylan’s voice, infused with his trademark rasp, blend perfectly to express the regretful yearning of an old man who has both softened and hardened with age.

Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see | Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me | Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from the fold | Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold | I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned | And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind | Though I grope and I blunder and I’m weak and I’m wrong | Though the road buckles under where I walk, walk along | Till I find to my wonder every path leads to Thee | All that I can do is pray, stay with me | Stay with me.

It recalls one of my favorite hymns, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come | And I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home | Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God | He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood | O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be | Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.

Like a child trying to pronounce all her syllables, Dylan’s intonation and rhythm are measured and deliberate, even as he strains to rein in his faltering vibratos and wandering pitch. His vulnerable vocals is a picture of the wandering sheep in the song, groping in the dark and stumbling along to God. I have never heard a more poignant song from this wearied bard, an embattled soul, who knows that he has not stayed with God, but desperately hopes that God has stayed with him.

“Some Enchanted Evening” and “Full Moon and Empty Arms” feature an electric guitar with strolling blues licks, which intertwines beautifully with the seesawing string bass to strike a slightly more hopeful tune.

But the album returns to its doleful trajectory with the following tracks, “Where Are You?” and “What’ll I Do”: “What’ll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to? When I’m alone with only dreams of you that won’t come true, what’ll I do?”

The final track, “That Lucky Old Sun,” is about the toil and trouble of life, and a labor-worn man’s desire to do nothing but “roll around heaven all day [like that lucky old sun].” The pace slows on the last line, and Dylan bellows it out at a higher octave with elongated syllables, soaring together with the swelling horns as if to lift himself up to heaven.

As songs like “Stay With Me,” “Why Try to Change Me Now,” and “That Lucky Old Sun” show, the heartsick lover in this album is a metaphor for brokenness of life itself. In a culture where love is treated like a commodity for exchange rather than a binding covenant, Dylan bemoans humanity’s unfulfilled longing for true love. This covenantal love, as Ephesians 5 reveals, is a glimpse into eternity itself, and points to Christ’s love for his people.

Shadows in the Night is thus a deeply spiritual album that correctly diagnoses the human plight. It ought to leave us weeping for God, always true and faithful, who loves an adulterous people who have forsaken their Creator and turned to other gods (Hosea 3:1).

Buy Shadows in the Night HERE.

The Love of Christ

“Forgiven much, you will love much; loving much, you will live to the service of Him whom you love. This is the grand master-principle of which we spoke; this is the secret spring of all the holiness of the saints.

The life of holiness is not what the world falsely represents it, a life of preciseness and painfulness, in which a man crosses every affection of his nature. …

We are constrained to holiness by the love of Christ; the love of Him who loved us, is the only cord by which we are bound to the service of God. The scourge of our affections is the only scourge that drives us to duty. Sweet bands and gentle scourges! Who would not be under their power?”

from “The Love of Christ” by Robert Murray McCheyne

Islam and Christianity, = or ≠?

At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama denounced the barbaric acts of terror perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In this context, he warned against blaming Islam and Muslims in general:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

This statement ignited a firestorm of criticism from Christian leaders and conservative politicians. In hindsight, it was probably unwise to use a complex and divisive example like the Crusade in a short speech that precludes historical and theological nuance.

I agree with Ross Douthat, “The deep problem with [President Obama’s] Niebuhrian style isn’t that it’s too disenchanted or insufficiently pro-American. It’s that too often it offers ‘self’-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.” For this reason, his exhortation “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought, but rather [to] think of [ourselves] with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3), instead comes across as a self-righteous criticism of the “rest” of America.

This fact does not, however, justify the harsh reactions of many conservative Christians. President Obama’s illustration was infelicitous, but what he said was, nonetheless, true. Christianity is not immune to radicalization, nor is Islam incapable of civility.

Admitting this is not the same thing as conceding that Christianity and Islam are morally equivalent or equally valid. I believe wholeheartedly that Christianity is true and that Islam is false. Nevertheless, I recognize, as Obama said, that “there is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” Sin is the real issue here.

The fact that the Bible, rightly interpreted, does not endorse violence is not the point. It does not matter whether the Qur’an, rightly interpreted, promotes violence or not (I address this issue in another post). We know from the very beginning of human history that Satan is capable of distorting even God’s Word for his depraved purposes (Genesis 3:1-5). He can incite Muslims to violence even if the word “jihad” never appears in the Qur’an.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Islam is not the enemy, sin is, Satan is, and he is an equal opportunity offender.

If we single out and categorically denounce Muslims as our adversaries, we will be fundamentally impaired from loving them. We will become fearful of Muslims and feel threatened by them. We will harden ourselves against them and relinquish our ability to love and bless them.

We must not let that happen. Muslims are the Samaritans of our generation (Luke 10:25-37). We must love them, pray for them, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Precisely because the real battle is spiritual, precisely because the real battle ground is the sinful human heart, Christ crucified for our redemption is the only ultimate solution to our universal, human problem.

Islamic Terror and Islamophobia

As the atrocities perpetrated by radical Islamists mount, we see two extreme reactions. Those numbed by political correctness insist that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam; those blinded by Islamophobia insist that Islamic terrorism has everything to do with Islam. Neither is right.

Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS are products of Wahhabism and Salafism, which belong to the literalist school of Islamic legal thought called Hanbali. This is a legitimate and influential school that emphasizes a strict adherence to the Qur’an and the Hadiths (the deeds and sayings of Muhammad). The terrorists find in these texts both a theological warrant and historical precedent for violent jihad. It is misleading, therefore, to maintain that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.

However, there are three other schools of law for Sunni muslims (as well as two others for Shia muslims and one for Khawarij muslims), which are more progressive than Hanbali and give weight not only to the Qur’an and the Hadiths, but also to scholarly consensus (ijma), analogical reasoning (qiyas), and local Muslim customs (urf) that exercise a moderating influence. Moreover, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS do not heed the conditions necessary for violent jihad or observe the proper conduct for violent jihad delineated by their own school. It is unfair, therefore, to assert that Islamic terrorism is the quintessence of Islam.

It is incumbent upon Christians to engage muslims in critical dialogue without blaming and alienating them wholesale. Neither indiscriminate “inclusion” nor discriminatory “exclusion” will work. We must appeal to their religious consciences and question their allegiance to pernicious schools of thought.

Above all, we must tell them that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins—a truth that Muslims explicitly deny (Qur’an 9:30).

The System and the Human Heart

I have written previously about How to Eradicate Racism and Racial Profiling, but recent events call for further reflection.

This week, a Staten Island grand jury voted not to indict New York City Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who used an illegal chokehold to restrain Eric Garner and inadvertently killed him. Pantaleo was white; Garner was black.

This ruling comes on the heels of the Ferguson ruling last month, when the grand jury voted not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in a confused altercation. Wilson was white; Brown was black.

These are tragic deaths that call for mourning. These are also polarizing deaths that call for charitable listening and thoughtful response from both sides of the racial divide.

A Black Perspective
It was only 59 years ago this week that Rosa Parks refused to obey the bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger. The specter of systemic racism stills hangs over our nation, even though much of it is now perpetuated in our subconscious. Those on the receiving end of injustice are naturally more keenly aware of it.

This is why, in the poll preceding the Ferguson decision, 59% of blacks said that Officer Wilson should be charged with murder, while only 15% of whites concurred. Similarly, only 13% of blacks thought that Officer Wilson acted in self-defense, while 43% of whites thought so.

A White Perspective
Our justice system, however, is not entirely broken. In January, a grand jury indicted Officer Randall Kerrick on voluntary manslaughter charges for fatally shooting Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick was white; Ferrell was black.

Nor are all white police officers out there to lock up or kill black people. Most of them are risking their lives to serve the public good, and some are oblivious to their subconscious racial profiling. In many cases, they are protecting black people from black violence, since 93% of black homicide victims are murdered by blacks.

The System
The mutual mistrust between blacks and law enforcement must be healed. (1) Police officers must be made aware of their racial biases and trained to de-escalate confrontations in order to curtail the use of deadly force. (2) Social ills such as poverty and fatherless must be ameliorated to reduce black criminality.

The Human Heart
But we would be deluded to think that we can change our society by merely changing institutions. Undoubtedly, our human condition is a broken one that must be fixed, but we must not ignore the human nature that drives it. Changing the system is an expedient solution, but changing the human heart is more exigent. Systemic reforms must be driven by those whose hearts have been reformed by Jesus Christ.

Enlightened principles will not fix our world. A system of redemption is not enough. We need a Redeemer who can change the human heart, and His name is Jesus Christ. We must repent of our selfish agendas and submit to Him. Then, God will give us a new heart and fill us with the Holy Spirit. And “beholding the glory of the Lord, [we will be] transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Rejoicing and Thanksgiving

The sermon I preached at Crossway Church (Franklin, MA) on November 9th, 2014.

“Rejoice, always, in the Lord who is near.” LISTEN

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

The Failed Promises of God

Many Christians live with a lingering sense that God has failed them. In particular, they look to God’s promises in the book of Proverbs and wonder why God did not fulfill His end of the bargain.

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Many pastors’ kids defy this maxim.

“The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short” (Proverbs 10:27). Yet it is an observed fact that the wicked live prosperous and prolonged lives.

As Bruce Waltke notes, the “Proverbs’ heavenly promises seem detached from earthly realities.”

Some prematurely conclude that these promises are false and that Scripture is unreliable. Others facilely defend the promises by arguing that one or more of the prerequisites were not met. “That pastor must not have trained up his children well.” “That short-lived Christian woman must not have truly feared the Lord.” But for a case in point, Jesus Christ lived a life of perfect obedience, yet he suffered terribly and was short-lived (Isa. 52:13-53:12; Matt. 27:43, 46).

A better answer lies in the nature and purpose of Proverbs. Proverbs are epigrammatic in nature. They are, by definition, pithy and witty, and as such, cannot be encumbered with qualifications. For this reason, proverbs are partial and contingent. We can see this even in the common, non-Biblical proverbs: “He who hesitates is lost,” and “look before you leap” are both true in certain contexts, though they advise opposite things.

Likewise, though “honor[ing] the Lord with your wealth … [ensures that] your barns will be filled with plenty” (Prov. 3:10), it is also true that “little with righteousness is better than great revenues with injustice” (Prov. 16:8). The book of Proverbs combines the idealism of a moral teacher with the realism of a sage, and the book must be understood holistically and contextually.

Finally, the purpose of Proverbs is to instill the fear of God (Prov. 1:7). While the book exhorts us to “get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Prov. 4:7), it also reminds us that “no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD” (Prov. 21:30). There is no foolproof set of wisdom principles that explains the mystery of God’s will exhaustively. The sovereign will of God cannot be tamed or controlled. The certainty of guaranteed results fosters pride and independence, but uncertainty engenders faith and dependence.

Thus, Proverbs is not a manual on how to manipulate God to give you a good life, but an exhortation to fear God and submit to Him by living before the presence of God, under the authority of God, and for the glory of God. It is written not for those who seek to use God, but for those who seek to know Him and His ways. This is why the book almost exclusively uses the covenant name of God, YHWH (translated “the LORD”).

In other words, the book of Proverbs does not offer the black and white “Thou shalt not” of the Law or the “Thus saith the LORD” of the Prophets, but beckons the believer humbly to trust and obey, even in the midst of the uncertainty. For ultimately, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10).