Tag Archives: Preaching

Two Commands: Simple but Challenging

Most people, whether they are Christian or not, are aware of what we often refer to as the “Greatest Commands.” These are the two commands of loving God and loving neighbor. They sound so simple and in fact, they are pretty simple. However, these two great commands are also very challenging and sometimes it seems like our assumed familiarity with these commands obscures the challenge. So allow me to poke, prod, and really go all preacher on us for a few minutes.

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Years ago I was traveling through Illinois down the very boring stretch of Interstate 57 and after sever cups of coffee, nature was calling. So trying to make the most of my stop, I pulled into a Cracker Barrel restaurant thinking I would get a bite to eat while also stopping to use the restroom. Now I’ve ate at a many of Cracker Barrel restaurants in my lifetime and the men’s room is always to the left and the women’s to the right. So with nature really desperately calling, I glanced up as I entered the restroom to my left and saw the sign that said “Men” on it. 

So I entered into the restroom and seeing as how desperately nature was calling, I just saw a stall and opened the door so that I could take care of business. However, it was in the middle of taking care of business that it dawned on me, “Rex, why aren’t there any urinals in this restroom?” That was about the moment when beads of sweat began forming on my forehead as I heard the sound of a couple of women entering this restroom. Apparently my ability to read and interpret a simple sign such as the gender of a restroom was not as accurate as I assumed.

Now let me share a more important point with you: I suspect that for many people, including myself, these two great commands of loving God and loving neighbor have become so familiar that we glance at them, assume we know what Jesus is saying. However, could it be that our assumption is a little off… perhaps a lot?

In Matthew 22, the occasion is a rather dubious question. The Pharisees and Sadducees have already tried entrapping Jesus with questions about paying taxes to Ceasar and the resurrection of the dead, so now they send in a lawyer to literally ask which commandment in the Torah is most important. However, Jesus answers correctly by quoting the Shēma from Deuteronomy 6 saying in v. 37, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.” This was the correct answer because obeying Torah was all about loving God.

“Jesus becomes our interpretive lens for how we understand the teachings of the law and in fact, the teachings of all scripture, and how we love both God and neighbor.”

Yet this is where everything gets interesting because Jesus didn’t stop with the Shēma. Instead he continues to answer the question with two other points. In v. 39 Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19 to say that there is a second great command, “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” So now loving God is impossible without loving our neighbors and likewise, when we love our neighbors we are loving God. Obeying both commands happens by doing the teachings of the Law and Prophets. This is why Jesus says in v. 40 “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

That seems strait-forward except that there is a twist here. Jesus has taken the role of a prophet calling people to repentance with the promised hope of coming salvation. In doing so, Jesus comes as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets which mentioned during his sermon preached on a mountain in Galilee (cf. Matt 5:17). So not only is Jesus disclosing the interpretive lens through which he understands the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is also living is the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets. Now Jesus becomes our interpretive lens for how we understand the teachings of the law and in fact, the teachings of all scripture, and how we love both God and neighbor.

But I’m not sure all Christians like this. We gather around the Lord’s Table in sanctuaries for worship where we confess through song and prayer that Jesus is Lord and hear the word of God proclaimed to us through scripture and sermon but does that transcend the way we live. Do our beliefs and values really become Christ-like?

Less than a hundred years ago there were Christians living in America that defended the racist and discriminatory practices against Blacks in this nation. Every person, Christian or not, can look back on this awful history and see just how badly these Christians failed in living the great commands. But today, in the name of what is supposedly good and politically beneficial, there are Christians who will defend unjust practices against people seeking to migrate into this nation from other countries… practices that have now rendered great harm by separating children from their parents in immigration detention facilities. This happens despite what scripture has to teach us about treating “foreigners and aliens”, despite what scripture teaches us about showing mercy, and despite how Jesus treated the Samaritans and Gentiles (enemies of the Israelites). This happens despite the fact that Jesus tells us we are to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

So I wonder if a hundred years from now, a generation of Christians will look on this generation and wonder how our generation could so badly miss the most simple teaching of Jesus just we wonder about those Christians in the 1950’s during Jim Crow? The good news though is that just as there were Christians during the twentieth century that defended racism, there were Christians knew such racism was wrong and that loving God and loving neighbor by following Jesus meant loving Black people as themselves. For that reason I am also confident that there are plenty of Christians who understand the denial of justice and mercy towards foreigners is wrong and that loving God and loving neighbor by following Jesus means loving all foreigners as ourselves.

May we have the moral courage to hear and obey Jesus when says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your hear, with all your being, and with all your mind… You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Discipleship: Jesus Calls… …We Follow

Discipleship Series Pic “When Christ calls a man, he bid him come and die,” wrote the German theologian, pastor, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his influential classic The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer understood perhaps more so than many contemporary Christians that following Jesus may call for our death — martyrdom — as a witness of Jesus. For his own commitment in following Jesus led him to lead what became known as the Confessing Church which became a movement resisting Nazi power, which ended for Bonhoeffer on the gallows at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945 at the young age of thirty-nine.

This coming Sunday, August 5th, I am starting a new and fairly short, four week, message series for the Newark Church of Christ on the subject of discipleship. While we will likely never be called to suffer any physical persecution, much less death, for following Jesus here in America (or at least anytime soon), we are nonetheless called to follow Jesus and this call is always counter-cultural. Discipleship is a life of living-sacrifice and obedience unto Jesus whom we confess as Lord. As I wrote in a Wineskins article back in 2013, Discipleship or following Jesus is about “learning to living in the way of Jesus.”

In this message series on discipleship, my aims to help the church (re)imagine the sort of kingdom vision Jesus is calling us to follow him in living, and broadly what that requires of us. In doing so, this series will cover four passages of scripture, one from each Gospel, beginning with Luke 4:14-30 followed by Mark1:14-20, Matthew 22:34-40, and John 13:1-18. Also, if you are someone who enjoys reading then here are two book recommendations that deal with the subject of discipleship.

  1. Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. A very practical book, the author explores how following Jesus and living the kingdom life relates to relevant life issues such as love, peace, and church, and even sex and vocation. This is a book that I have given to students graduating from high school or already in college because it deals with challenges and question everyone faces in adult life.
  2. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. Though still accessible reading, Camp offers a primer on what it means to be a Christian. The book serves as a counter vision to the easy pop-Christianity that has so easily co-opted American idealism, going back to scriptures and the cross-shaped vision Jesus calls people to follow him in living.

The Imago Dei: It’s Who We Are

Someone once said, “If you want to change the world, tell a different story.” That’s because storytelling is a very formative means of shaping our imaginations for how we live. In fact, Robert McKee says, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” So if you want people to see the world differently and live differently, then the need to hear a different story.

Imago DeiA different story is what the Genesis Creation Narrative offers us.* In a world where ideas and objects are idolized as gods, the Genesis story of creation reminds us that there is only one God who has created humanity in his image and likeness. The point of the story is not to offer us a scientific account of how creation came about within history. Though we may have many questions about the scientific origins of human life within the history of time, forcing the text to answer all these questions — an issue that was never an issue among the Ancient Near-Eastern context — only obscures us from the real question of who we are as God’s creation and what this means for how we should live.

Ultimately, the vision for understanding our existence centers on our creation in the divine image. As Genesis 1:26-27 says, “The God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them” (CEB).

“Our value as human beings comes from God who has made us all equally in his image and likeness.”

Genesis chapter one, which vv. 26-27 occurs within, portrays a cosmic temple scene in which God dwells among his creation as a king (Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11, 16; Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 83-84). This temple imagery has implications for our own creation in the image of God, as it means we are the royal subjects of God the king who by nature possess wealth and prestige. So even though the recent royal wedding of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry locates royalty within a certain bloodline, the truth is that every person by virtue of their created nature possesses royalty. So just as God has given us the responsibility of serving as stewards of his creation, we serve as his royal priests with the vocational task of ensuring that life flourishes as God intends.

To this end, we must become more discerning about how God created us to live life. Currently, we live in a world that often assigns human value based on external factors… wealth, athleticism, intelligence, race and ethnicity, and certainly sexuality. Such external values are nothing but lies! Our value as human beings comes from God who has made us all equally in his image and likeness.

There are many implications of possessing the divine image that need our attention. I’ll just briefly mention two.

  1. Sexuality. The value of both men and women is not determined by sexual willingness and performance, the physical shapes and abilities of their bodies, or by their specific genders. Both men and women are equally bear the divine image, the image and likeness that gives them an equal value of immeasurable wealth.
  2. Discrimination. The value of people are not determined by the color of their skin, their ethnic and national origin, social-economic status, or religious and political beliefs. All people are born bearing the divine image and so there is never any place nor time when racism and discrimination is acceptable.

So rather than seeing people as sexual objects to overcome for our own perverse satisfactions or viewing people as unequals whom we can oppress for our own gain, we must learn to love all people as subjects — human beings — made in the image of God. We must also learn to see ourselves as people made in the image and likeness of God. This is the beginning point for living the life God has created us to live. And when we learn to regard all people, including ourselves, as people who bear the divine image, then we’ll learn to start seeing people as Jesus sees people and do for people as Jesus does for people.


* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 1:1, 26-31 called Imago Dei, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.

With Thanksgiving… An Advent Message

Sunday, November 27th, was the beginning of the New Year per the Christian Calendar. It was also the First Sunday of Advent. Below is the video of the Advent sermon I preached at the Westside Church of Christ from Psalm 100 which is called “With Thanksgiving.”

Speak Carefully: Words Do Matter!

This post isn’t about the politics of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton but it is an observation and an opportunity to learn. I want to offer some thoughts about the words we speak in public. While I have in mind church leaders such as elders and ministers, what follows is sound advise for anyone and might just help you avoid having to insert a foot in your mouth or worse.

Unless you’ve been cave dwelling for the last few days, you know that Donald Trump is taking a lot of criticism for his remarks about Hillary Clinton and the second amendment. Trump suggested that Clinton wants to take away the second amendment right to bear arms and that there’s nothing that can be done about it but then suggested that people “the second amendment people” could do something about it. Trump’s critics believe that this is a veiled threat while his supporters believe it’s only a plea for increased political activity.

Hillary Clinton responded by reminding her supporters that “Words matter…” Whatever Trump may have meant is besides the point. What is important and is at least one thing that Clinton is right about is that words do matter!

“Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.”

– Proverbs 21:23

Let’s not pretend that words are insignificant and meaningless. What we say does matter and so we better take care to think about the words we use.

Everyone of us, especially those who speak in public forums, will eventually say something ill-advised. That’s seems par for the course and when it happens, the best thing we can do is apologize. However, the more we speak out of turn, saying something careless or hurtful, the more credibility we lose. And remember, credibility is part of our trust factor and it’s like a tree… it takes years to grow and just a few minutes with a few foolish words to tear down.

As a minister, I write my sermons out word for word as a manuscript. While I don’t preach word for word from the manuscript, writing my sermons out like this accomplishes several objectives and one of those is giving careful thought to the words I say. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way because I have had to apologize for something I said, something that was true but was poorly stated, which led to insult rather than instruction. In fact, if your a beginning preacher, here’s some free advise: take the time to write your sermons, thinking carefully about the words you use because the words you speak do matter.

A politician might be able to play the game of political spin and get away with saying something careless but that is not so likely with us who lead among churches. Regardless of what Trump may have meant, let’s see his carelessness as a reminder that our words do matter. Let us resolve ourselves to be wise and give thought to what we say before we speak!

About Sunday’s Sermon

About Sunday’s sermon… Perhaps it was the very word from the preacher that you needed to hear. A convicting word, an encouraging word, a challenging word, and so on. If that is the case, then praise the Lord! You heard a word from the Lord through the preacher that God has appointed to preach his word and for that, as a preacher myself, I am glad.

But perhaps yesterday’s sermon wasn’t so good and you’re not happy. The sermon just fell flat, the preacher’s message just wasn’t that inspiring unlike those TED Talks you love, the sermon went a little too long… or was too short. Maybe it’s just the preacher who isn’t that dynamic of a speaker… if only your preacher could deliver a sermon like _______ (insert the name of your favorite preacher). I’m sorry!

I’m sorry because you missed hearing a word from the Lord and it has nothing to do with your preacher. That’s right! I think the problem is you. For whatever reason, you didn’t come open to what God might say to you through the word your preacher spoke. Lurking behind your unhappiness is a whole lot of consumerism, selfishness, and expectations that are impossible to satisfy. Here’s the problem

  • As long as you come wanting to hear a sermon like your favorite preacher always delivers, then you’ll likely miss what God wanted to say through your preacher — who clearly isn’t your favorite.
  • As long as your worried about how long it is until that closing hymn, then you’ll likely never have enough time to hear a word from the Lord since He doesn’t work on your time schedule — though you’ll likely have enough time to complain later.
  • As long as your more worried about the way your preacher delivers the sermon rather than listening to hear the word of God preached, then you’ll likely miss the word of God — all the while blaming the preacher.

I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. Now let me as a preacher elaborate a little more.

Why I’m Writing This…

Right now I’m in a ministry transition. So other that guest preaching on a few Sunday’s, I have been the one sitting in worship and hearing the preacher preach. Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to hear about ten different preachers and all of them had a different style of delivery. I could, if I wanted to, evaluate every preacher for the development of content and delivery of the sermon but I have intentionally chosen not to do so because that is what God wants. That is, God has not blessed me with the opportunity to gather in worship with other Christians, which typically includes hearing a sermon during that gathering, just so that I can critically evaluate what I like and dislike about a sermon. If I myself want to hear a word from God then I must gather in the presence of God with a listening posture, open to what God might say through the foolishness of preaching (cf. 1 Cor 1:21).

The same is true for you. If you want to hear a word from God then you must gather in the presence of God with a listening posture, open to what God might say through the foolishness of preaching. Don’t get me wrong… I’m not giving preachers a pass for being lazy and not preparing well (which is usually very evident). But just because your preacher did not hit a home-run with last Sunday’s sermon does not nullify the word of God spoken for those who have come hungry for the word of God. And I am, as a preacher, standing up for other preachers because some of the complaints I have heard about one preacher or another tell me that there’s a problem and it’s not the preacher who has the problem.

So about Sunday’s sermon… Perhaps you heard a word from the Lord and if so, as I said earlier, praise the Lord! May that word be lived out in your very life this week and beyond! And if you didn’t… perhaps next Sunday!