We Love First – Part 1 of a 5-week Sermon Series called “We Love First” – preached at First Church Coral Springs on April 30, 2017.

We Love First – Part 1 of a 5-week Sermon Series called “We Love First” – preached at First Church Coral Springs on April 30, 2017.

 What’s the Vision?

Almost as soon as I arrived last summer, as your new pastor, some of you were asking, “What’s your vision for First Church?”  What’s my vision?  Are you kidding?  At that point I was still trying to find the grocery store, the movie theater, a new dentist!  I had no idea what vision I had for First Church.  At that point, I wasn’t sure about the vision for my last church!  Now, 9 months later, I still have no idea what the vision is.  I still need a GPS just to find most places around Broward county!  I’m still looking for stuff I packed this time last year.

What’s the vision?  Give me a break!

You tell me!  Almost all of you have been here longer than I have!

But, saying that I don’t know what the vision is, doesn’t mean that I don’t think a vision is extremely important.  It is!  I do!  Proverbs 29:18 says, Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  And, Acts 2: 17 says, that Holy Spirit is given so that, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

Pastor Andy Stanley, in Atlanta, writes, Vision is a mental picture of what could be, fueled by a passion that it should be.”

Imagine that.  Imagine what could happen if we had a shared, crystal-clear picture of what God wants us to do, AND that we all shared a deep passion for accomplishing it.

            I passionately believe in the value of having a defining, unifying vision.  Without it, it is very difficult to say what is a priority and what is not a priority, what we will do and what we won’t do.  Without a clear vision, there can be competing values and agendas, or no values or agendas at all.

And, honestly, I think that describes First Church pretty well.  We do a lot of great things.  But, can we say why we do what we do?  What is our core God-given sense of purpose?

Some of us are passionate about music ministry.  Some of us are passionate about food ministry.  Some of us are passionate about the homeless.  Some of are passionate about Bethlehem.  Some of us are passionate about children and youth.  Some of us are passionate about prayer.  Some of us are passionate about Bible study.  Some of us are passionate about serving and reaching the community.  Some of us are passionate about traditional worship.  Some of us are passionate about contemporary worship.  Some of us are passionate about growth.  Some of us are passionate about maintaining the status quo – never changing anything, ever.

As long as that is true, how do we decide how to allocate our budget?  How do we decide what ministries to start?  How do we decide which ministries to stop?  How do we decide what kind of staff we need?  How do we decide how to use our buildings?  How do we know when to stretch, take risks, and act of faith?

We need a vision.

On the day after Easter, I packed a small bag, strapped it to the back of my Harley, and headed north on A1A.  Before I left, I made arrangements for places to stay in Vero, Ormond Beach, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Stuart.  I made arrangements to see some friends.  I had a basic route planned out.  I knew that by Wednesday afternoon I would be with my friends in Jacksonville, and Saturday I would be home.  I had a vision and a plan for where I was going, how I would get there, and what I would do.  And, I had a great trip.

But, I didn’t plan every minute.  I was very loose and flexible with my time and agenda.  I only rode for a few hours a day, which left me lots of time to explore, and relax, drink cups of coffee, read, and spend time with friends.

But, if I had left with no plans at all, no vision for where I was going, I might not have found places to stay.  I might not have known where to go.  I might have gotten lost.  I might have wasted a lot of time.  My friends might not have been available to meet.  I might have had an entirely frustrating trip.

A vision and plan is a helpful thing.  Churches need vision.  First Church needs a vision.

The problem is, a true God-given vision doesn’t just pop out of thin air.  Going on a week-long vacation is a bit easier than knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.  You can’t just send a pastor to the top of a mountain and expect he will return with stone tablets carved with God’s vision.  If just doesn’t work that way.

But, I do want you to know that I’ve been devoting significant prayer to First Church’s vision since before I arrived, and I won’t stop until it is crystal clear.  Then I will pray that God will help us achieve it.

But, God works in God’s timing not mine.

I also tend to believe that while I may be the one to eventually articulate the vision, I’ll only be saying something that God has already spoken into the heart of this congregation.  Like I said, many of you have been worshipping, serving, giving, and praying for this church for a long time.  I suspect you already know the vision.  I suspect it has already been given.  I suspect the vision for our future is already here.  We just have to find it.

A Church the Loves Well…

One of the ways I’ve been seeking that vision, is by listening – asking questions and listening.  A few months back, I was riding to Orlando with our youth director, Chris Linderman. I asked him, “Chris, what kind of church do you dream of being part of?”  After a few minutes of quiet thought, Chris said, “I want to be part of a church that loves well.”  I asked him what that meant.  He said something like, “I want to be part of a church that loves God so much that everything we do is motivated by God’s love; we serve because we love; we worship because we love; we share Jesus because we love; we fellowship because we love; we take care of each other because we love”

            I like that.  I like that a lot.

Obviously, that’s very close to something Jesus said.

The Greatest Commandment:

On numerous occasions, Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?”   Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

            In John 13:34, Jesus also says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I know we’ve all heard that.  But, I’d like for us to think about it for a moment.  What is the most important commandment?  He doesn’t say anything about rule-keeping, church attendance, or theological correctness.  He doesn’t say anything about spiritual gifts, or Biblical knowledge, or serving.  All of those ARE important.  But, the #1, most important thing we can do, according to Jesus, is love God and love neighbor.

Also, notice that.  He states the two as a single command.  One command:  love God and love one another.  They go together, inseparably.

Brennan Manning writes, “The litmus test of our love for God is our love of neighbor.” 

They go hand-in-hand.

We Love First

            In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, “love first.”  Before everything else, ground yourself in love.  “Love first.”  There are many valuable religious things we can do – worship, Bible study, service, retreats, etc., etc.  But, nothing is more important than love.  In fact, without love, everything else is utterly meaningless.  Paul wrote, If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

            John Wesley writes, “Love is the highest gift of God; humble, gentle, patient love; that all visions, revelations, manifestations whatever, are little things compared to love.”

 What is Love?

            I want to be very clear about something.  I’ve heard people say, “I don’t want to hear sermons about how I’m supposed to love everybody!”; as though there is something biblically or theologically soft about talking about love; as though there are more weighty things to talk about, like sin and judgment.  I think such sentiments must be rooted in a complete misunderstanding of what love is.

Love begins with God…

            Love can’t be weak or soft, because love begins with God.  In fact, love is God’s own self-definition.  I John 4:7-8 says, Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Hear that again – “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  That is a bold statement.  Love isn’t optional for Christians.  It is the one and only way we can know who God is.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

Love is more than a feeling

I think part of the problem with our understanding of love is that we think it is just an emotion or feeling.  1 John 4:9-11 clearly corrects this, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

            Which leads us back to what is first… “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (vs. 12)

            But, notice the kind of love he’s talking about.  Christian love isn’t just warm, affectionate, sentimental feeling.  We are called to love one another the way that God loves us – sacrificially.  He showed us he loved us by sacrificing his son.  He shows us love by loving us before we loved him.  He shows us love by loving us when we don’t deserve it.

1 Corinthians 13 describes a love that is far from just emotion and sentimentalism… “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (vs. 4-7)

Can any of us honestly say that we haven’t been envious, impatient or unkind – even with the people we claim to love the most?  Can we honestly claim that we haven’t been boastful, or prideful, or self-seeking, or easily angered?

Love is far from soft emotional sentimentality.  Love is hard.  Love is challenging.  Love is work.  Love requires deep personal sacrifice and a significant amount of personal spiritual maturity!

Mother Teresa said, “(For) love to be real, it must cost—it must hurt—it must empty us of self.” 

What’s the Vision?

            So back to the original question, “What’s the vision?”  Like I already said, I have absolutely no idea.  I have no idea what kind of church we will be in the years to come. But, I know we need a vision, and I am fully committed to identifying that vision and pursuing it to actualization.

Some of you might be thinking, “Why do we need a vision?  Hasn’t the Bible made it pretty clear what we are supposed to do?”

            I absolutely agree.  The Bible is clear.  Until a specific vision for First Church becomes clearer to us, it seems to me that Jesus has already given us some pretty clear instruction – to love.  Love God.  Love our neighbors.  Love each other.  Love First.

Love God, passionately in worship and service.  Love each other – even when you may not like each other.  Love the people who walk in our doors – no matter who they are.  Love the people we serve.  Love the people in this community that don’t know Jesus.  Love the people that we might otherwise consider unlovable.  Love God and people more than traditions.  Love God and people more than institutions.  Love God and people more than rules.  Love God and people more than our personal agendas.  Love God and people more than our petty personal preferences. Love God and people with our words, our actions, our service, our offerings.  Love like God loves.

Love first.


Cogs, Machines, People and Pastors

Cogs, Machines, People and Pastors

I’m a United Methodist Pastor.  At ordination, I submitted to the authority of a bishop, to go where I am sent to serve.  In some denominations, pastors decide for themselves whether or not to accept a “call” to serve a particular church or to live in a particular locale.  Not so with United Methodist pastors.  We go where we are sent.

Once upon a time, the basic assumption was that all United Methodist pastors were more-or-less the same, as were most United Methodist churches.  UM pastors were trained in UM seminaries to perform uniform ministerial practices – always men wearing black suits, black ties, and black robes.  Every UM church sung the same hymns, followed the same liturgy, observed the same traditions, heard sermons from the same texts on the same days, etc., etc.  Every church and every pastor was assumed to be, more or less, the same.

We operated under the assumption that pastors were like cogs and that churches were machines.  Every few years, bishops could remove the cogs, re-sort them, and insert each cog into a new machine, press the “on” switch, and the machine would continue to operate, just like it did before.

We don’t live in that world any more.

Each church is wildly different.  Some are traditional.  Some are contemporary.  Some are both – though I’m finding the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” are highly debatable.  We have churches that are primarily white, primarily black, primarily hispanic, primarily Islander, etc., etc.  Some churches lean liberal, and some conservative.  We have city churches and rural churches.  Some churches are more socially conscious and some are more evangelical.  We have churches that are growing and healthy and others that are declining and dying.  We have churches within churches, especially in our larger congregations.

Likewise, pastors are wildly different.  We attend different seminaries, with different theological emphases.  Some of us are stronger leaders, stronger administrators, stronger preachers, stronger teachers, stronger evangelists – but none are strong at everything.  Some are traditional.  Some are entrepreneurial.  Some are more pastoral.  Some are more visionary.  Some are more political.  Some are more passionate about missions.  Some are more focused on the needs of the congregation.  Some are more focused on the needs of the world.

No two pastors are alike.  That’s always been true, of course.  But, I think UM pastors were once expected to perform their duties in a fairly homogenous manner, that was more similar than dissimilar.  Those days are long gone.

Pastors aren’t cogs.

So, the question is asked, “Is such-and-such pastor a ‘good fit’ for such-and-such church?”  But, the problem with that question is, that while it acknowledges that pastors and churches are different, it betrays an assumption that we are still just cogs that need to fit into the “right” church/machine.

Pastors aren’t cogs.  And, churches are not machines.

While some pastors and some churches might be more easily compatible than others, ultimately we’re talking about people and relationships.  Churches can’t expect pastors to fit like cogs into their established machinery.  Neither, can pastors expect churches to be machines that adapt to the particular shape of their particular cog.  A successful pastor/church relationship is far more organically relational than that.

While there are dating websites that profess to “match” people, based on compatibility, I suspect that many of those matches don’t actually work out, and that those that do require time to get to know each other, a lot of learning and discovery, and ultimately negotiation, patience, and understanding as each learns to appreciate the uniqueness of the other.

“Compatibility” is not a word I use to describe my relationship with my wife.  We are so different – opposites, in fact – in so many ways, that we might even be considered incompatible.  And, yet, we’re good together – really good.  We were and are attracted to each other, despite our differences.  We respect and appreciate each other.  We’ve found ways to share life that is mutually beneficial.  We love each other for who we actually are.

Here’s a metaphor:

My wife’s family always has a “relish tray” for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners; offering various pickles and olives.  My family never did that.  To this day, the “relish tray” does not “fit” on “my” holiday table. It’s weird.  Similarly, my family always had chocolate desserts for the holidays.  My wife’s father is allergic to chocolate, so she never considered chocolate a holiday dessert.  They had fruit pie.  Fruit pie!?!  At Christmas!?!  That’s weird.

As you might guess, at the holidays, in our house, we now have olives, pickles, fruit pies, and chocolate.  We’ve also added a few new dishes, which I’m sure my own children will have to negotiate with their future spouses.

That’s how relationships work.  It’s not about “fit.”  It’s about learning how to make a life together that is mutually beneficial.

This Sunday, in some United Methodist churches, announcements will be made that some pastors are being moved and that some churches will be receiving new pastors.  The first thought, in many minds, will be, “Will our new pastor be a good fit?”  The answer is “no.”  They won’t be.  Don’t expect them to be.

Rather, churches should expect that the new pastor will be very different than the last, and pastors should expect that their new church will also be very different than those they’ve previously served.  What should be expected – by the pastor and the church – is everything that goes into forming any successful new relationship…

  • painfully-slow relationship building.
  • awkward, sweaty hand-holding.
  • uncomfortable conversations that lead to misunderstandings.
  • possibly a honeymoon period – that inevitably ends.
  • discovering really annoying habits in each other.
  • unsuccessful attempts to change each other.
  • working through – on both sides – unrealistic and unfair expectations, and the disappointments that come with unrealized expectations.
  • lots and lots and lots of negotiation.
  • maybe, a few arguments.
  • together, forming new ways of being together.
  • mutually learning how to honor and appreciate the other.
  • shared experiences, that create intimacy.
  • eventually, hopefully, the blossoming of mutual respect, love, affection, and harmony.
  • and – if we want to extend the metaphor even further –  possibly the “birth” of something shared, new, and beloved!

Last July, I was unexpectedly sent to a new congregation.  I was told it was going to be a better ‘fit.”  How silly.  There’s no such thing.  Now, in my ninth month of “dating” my new church, I would say that we are very much in the midst of the process I described.  AND WE SHOULD BE!  Why would we expect anything else?  Forming a relationship takes time.  And, that is what a pastor and a congregation creates together – a relationship.

Pastors are not cogs.  Churches are not machines.  One does not “fit” into the other, or vice-a-versa.  That’s not how it works.

Reflections on Forty Days of Blogging

Reflections on Forty Days of Blogging

For Lent, I committed to write a blog, everyday, for forty days, plus Sundays.  I did it!  But, now Lent is over…

What now?

I don’t plan to continue blogging daily – I think we would all get a little sick of that.  Instead, I’m thinking that I will continue to post my sermons/messages every Sunday, and write a blog about once-a-week.  Possibly more, if something really excites me. (And, you know how excited I can get!)

Thanks to everyone who has been reading and sharing my blogs.  You have been very kind and encouraging, and affirming of my writing.

Now that Lent 20217 is finally over, I thought it might be appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned from forty-plus days of writing…

  • It hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be.  I wondered if I would be able to think of something to write about – every day!  Surprise, surprise – the preacher never ran out of things to say!
  • Blogging made me more observant.  Needing something to write about – every day – made me more observant of life.  My eyes and ears were more open and receptive than usual, as I was always looking for inspiration.  I hope that continues.
  • Everything is theological.  Though I wrote about silly things – ranging from my motorcycle to bonsai trees to the Bible – I found that there are countless ways to reflect on who God is and what God does.  God isn’t just found in Scripture or theology books or sermons.  God is everywhere, at work in everything.
  • Blogging is cathartic.  As an introvert, and a fairly private person – in a very public profession – I have a tendency to bottle up my thoughts and feelings.  It was surprisingly easy to be surprisingly honest in this medium.  And, helpful.  And, healthy.  Sorry if you found out more about me than you really wanted to know.
  • I love to write.  Who knew?
  • I can be really, really long-winded.  Again, who knew?
  • Blogging forces me to think and reflect more deeply.  Frankly, it is pretty easy to be shallow.  But, putting your thoughts, theology, opinions, and the like, out for public consumption, requires a bit more care and attention – a bit more depth.  “Is this true?  Is this worth sharing?  Am I being clear?  Can I say this better?”
  • I have a fixation with “-“s, I can’t keep my verb tenses straight, and I’m a terrible proof-reader.  Shouldn’t I have acquired a mastery of basic English grammar by now?
  • Stats are a trap!  When you blog, you have access to stats regarding how many people have read your blog, and from what countries, and what days you have had the most hits, and which blogs have been most liked and shared, etc.  I wrote my blog for me, just hoping it my be helpful or interesting to others.  I didn’t write for the purpose of gaining a following.  But, I was seduced into looking at my stats every day!  My vanity soared on “good” days, and self-esteem plummeted on “bad” days.  How ironic – my Lenten discipline was an opportunity for my pride and vanity to raise their ugly, demonic heads!
  • “Snarky” is not a word in common parlance.  Apparently, some of you weren’t too sure what I meant when I said I was being “snarky.”  According to Miriam-Webster, “snarky” means,  “crotchity, snappish, impertinent or irreverent in tone.”   Who?  Me?
  • Restoration is a process.  As my sermons, and many of my blogs, were focused on the theme of “Restoration,” I’ve been reflecting on my own need for restoration.  More than anything else, I found myself asking, “Do I really believe this?  Do I really believe that God restores – me?”  Yes – I believe it.  But, I am painfully aware that restoration is a process – a painfully slow process.  Thankfully, God is not done with me yet.  But, I wish he would pick up the pace!

Whelp.  That’s about all I can think of, for now.  I’m currently on the road, riding my motorcycle, alone, northward-bound on A1A, along the Atlantic coast.  I’m sure I may have some things to share when I complete my journey.

(And, yes, the bike is running great!)

Restored – A message preached on Easter Sunday, 2017, at First Church of Coral Springs, to conclude a Lent series called “Restoration.”

Restored – A message preached on Easter Sunday, 2017, at First Church of Coral Springs, to conclude a Lent series called “Restoration.”

During the season of Lent, our theme has been “Restoration,” as in when someone takes something that is old and broken-down – an old house, an old car, an old piece of furniture – and takes the time to restore it into something new.  Similarly, we have said that is what Jesus did for us on the cross – taking the broken junk from each of our lives to the cross, where he restored us into something brand new.

            The Apostle Paul wrote,Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

When humanity was completely ruined by sin, Jesus took all of the worthless junk to the cross.

As Isaiah says, “By his wounds, we are healed.”

            It takes someone with artistic vision and skill to do good restoration work, and today I am going to tell you about the greatest artist of all time.  He is the one responsible for everything that exists.  The Bible says that it took God seven days of artistic creativity to create the heavens and the Earth; the mountains and the valleys, the oceans and the streams, the stars and the planets, and all living things.  God made a fantastically beautiful creation.  But, the crowning achievement of God’s artistic project was humanity.  If you have ever been moved looking at a mountain, or a sunset, or the ocean, you should take a look at yourself!  You are God’s greatest work!

Genesis 1:26&27 says that when God created humans, he created us in his own image and likeness.  That means that there is inherent beauty in each of us, because we were made to be a reflection of God.

To take that a step further, God also created a special place for us to live – with him – for all of eternity, called Eden.  He created us by love, to be loved, and to love.  He intended to provide everything we need – eternal joy, comfort, belonging, acceptance, purpose and peace – for eternity.  In Eden, we would have perfect relationships with each other, with creation, with ourselves, and especially with God.

This was God’s intent for his creation.  But something went terribly, terribly wrong.

Since God created the first humans, we have always been hell-bent on NOT being the creation God intended.  Every generation has drifted further from away God.  The world has become an increasingly broken and damaged place.  We do not live in the creation God intended for us.

If you don’t believe me, just turn on the news any night.

Lisa Sharon Harper writes, “Humanity’s broken relationship with God is the cause of all other brokenness.”

            The Message version of Ephesians 2 says, “ It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.”

Listen to that again – “It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.”

God didn’t.  God didn’t just “do away” with us.  God didn’t give up.  If he had, that would mean that sin is greater than grace.  If he did, that would mean our power to destroy is greater than his power to create and restore.  If God intended creation – including us – to be a certain way, then you can be sure that God will have the final word.  God always has the final word – on everything!

In Ephesians 2, in The Message, Paul continues, “Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.”

            Just listen to those words!

  • Immense in mercy,
  • With incredible love,
  • He embrace us.,
  • He made us alive in Christ,
  • He picked us up and set us down in the highest heaven in company with Jesus.

Here’s the image I want you to picture.  Imagine all of your sin and brokenness is the piles of old, broken junk, we leave at the curb for the garbage men.  It stinks.  It’s worthless.  It’s unrepairable – at least that’s what we think.  It’s embarrassing to look at.  But, before the garbage truck arrives, the Great Junk-Collector comes rolling down the street, gathering up all of our junk, seeing possibility and potential.  He throws in the back of his truck, and hauls it all to the foot of the cross.  That’s what Golgotha was – a great big garbage heap – metaphorically speaking.  He left it there in the dark of Good Friday, and the darkness of Holy Saturday, but when the sun come up on Easter morning, on the third day, instead of garbage, there’s a new creation! 

When God intends beauty, God will not be denied!

Makoto Fujimura writes, “Despite our fallen nature, God desires to reflect goodness, beauty, and truth in us.  God desires to refract his perfect light via the broken, prismatic shards of our lives.”  Makoto Fujimura

Listen to Ephesians 2 again, this time in the NLT version, “God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus… For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” Ephesians 2:4-10

            “You are God’s Masterpiece!”

The NIV version says that we are God’s “handiwork.”  The ESV version says that we are God’s “workmanship.”  I like “masterpiece” the best!

Think about a masterpiece.  Think of great works of visual art, like the works of Michelangelo.  Think about great, classic literature, like the writings of Shakespeare.  Think of great works of architecture – like the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China.  Think of great epic films like the Ten Commandments, or The Lord of the Rings, or the Star Wars saga. Think of classic works of music, like those sung by Bob Marley! (I’m a big Bob Marley fan!)

All masterpieces, by master artists!  And, the Bible says that you are God’s masterpiece too!

Even when we, were mired in that old stagnant life of sin… He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ.”  And, we are, “his masterpiece.”

Peter Kreeft writes, “The block of marble is not the sculptor, and doesn’t see that he’s about to become a masterpiece… We’re the block of marble and God is the sculptor, and the chisel is…. everything.”

In preparation for today, I investigated the origin of the word “Masterpiece.”  It turns out that it comes from the middle ages.  Back then, when you wanted to learn a profession, you couldn’t go to a trade school or university.  You attached yourself to master of that particular profession as his or her apprentice.  Eventually, as your learned and mastered the skills necessary, you could present a sample of your best work to the local guild of masters.  What you presented was called a “master” piece.  It would be your best work, and would demonstrate that you had the knowledge, skills, and ability to be considered a master.

God is the original master artist.  And, he has demonstrated his mastery in you.  “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Ephesians 2:10)

I think that’s the message of Easter.  No matter how broken your life has become, God has never given up on you.  Jesus carried all of our junk to the cross, and he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:6

Think about the verse …

When children bring us their artwork, we display it on the refrigerator, for everyone to see.  For some reason, some people take pictures of great meals, and post them on Facebook, or Instagram.  If we have valuable art in our homes, we put in a place of honor – on a mantle, a pedestal, or on the wall under a special light.  We display our masterpieces.  We show them off.  We share them with others.

God does the same.  Did you know that you are on display in heaven?  For we are God’s masterpiece… and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus… So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us.”  Did you hear that?  You are currently seated in heaven.  God points you out as his masterpiece.

When the saints, and angels, and archangels, drop by for a visit, he shows you off.  When people die, and go to heaven, and get their tour, the tour guides point to us as God’s personal collection of masterpieces.  You are his masterpiece, on display beside his thrown for all to see!

            Now you might be thinking…

  • I don’t feel like a masterpiece,
  • I don’t look like a masterpiece.
  • I just came to church because it’s Easter.
  • I’m only here because somebody made me come.
  • If that pastor knew me, he wouldn’t say that I am a masterpiece.

I don’t know why you’re here today.  I don’t know how you got here.  And, frankly, I don’t care.  I’m just glad you’re here.  No matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what has been done to you; while you, YOU, were still stuck in sin, Christ died for you.  Maybe some of you are still stuck in sin right now.

Please listen to me!  When Jesus arose on Easter morning, he made it possible for you to rise with him.  You might feel like junk – you might be junk – but you are God’s junk!  He made you.  And, he’s not done with you.

He made you.  He made you in his own image.  No matter what you have done to mess that up, God isn’t done with you yet.  God sees your potential. He sees the work of art you can be.

Max Lucado writes, God sees in you a masterpiece about to happen.

            While I was researching the word “masterpiece,” I discovered something else.  There are numerous theories and philosophies about what is required for something to be considered a “masterpiece,” depending on the “expert” and depending upon whether it is art, or literature, or music.  But, I noticed a common theme in my research.  I kept finding the phrase, “you just know a masterpiece when you see it.”

            I know you are a masterpiece, just by looking at you this Easter morning.  I know you are a masterpiece, because God’s Word says so.

A Strange Saturday…

A Strange Saturday…

I woke up this morning, feeling relieved.  It has been a busy, hectic Holy Week.  My church had three different services – one on Maundy Thursday, and two on Good Friday – each requiring a different sermon.  Beyond the sermons, there were also numerous other details of the worship services to prepare.  And, of course, just because it is Holy Week doesn’t mean that there aren’t still all of the other pastoral tasks, duties and responsibilities of every other week of the year.

So, this morning, I did not set an alarm.  I slept in – a little.  I took my time, drinking my coffee, chatting with my wife, and easing into this Holy Saturday.

I felt relieved that a crazy week was over.

I finally got moving, later than I should have, and immediately felt anxiety about tomorrow – Easter Sunday.  I needed to go to church to make sure the sanctuary is ready.  I started fretting about details like my clothes, my vestments, and even what I will eat before the sunrise service.  And, there’s that little detail of a sermon that I haven’t had time to think about.

Relief and stress, intermingled.  Strange.

At church, we had an “Easterfest” for the young families with children, including Easter egg hunts and bounce houses.  It was great to see the fun and excitement.  But, also strange.  Is it ok to celebrate Easter while Jesus is still, symbolically, in the grave?

Liturgically, that’s what today represents.  This is Holy Saturday, the day Jesus lay in his tomb – dead.

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Holy Saturday.  We know it was the Jewish Sabbath, so no work was allowed.  Matthew says that the religious leaders requested that Roman guards be placed at Jesus’ tomb, for fear of Jesus’ followers stealing his body and claiming that he had risen from the dead.

And, there was that – Jesus, dead, in his tomb.

We assume that Jesus’ followers were mostly in hiding that Saturday.  Surely, they were in the deepest mourning anyone can imagine.  But, I also wonder if there was some sense of relief that the ordeal of Thursday night and Friday were over.  I know that sounds terribly morbid.  But, watching him tortured and suffering, and destined to die, had to be worse than knowing at least his terrible trial was over.

And, because it was the Sabbath, there was no pressure to “DO” anything.  I wonder if they all just collapsed from the emotional exhaustion of all they had just been through.

Then again, I also wonder if they also were fearful, worried, stressed?  The Jewish and Roman guards might be hunting for them.  And, now, what were they supposed to do?  Go home?  Go back to their old lives?

I have to imagine the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday was a strange day.  Relief and stress, co-mingled.  Today feels strange to me, and I know how the story ends!

Now, I still need to write that sermon.


“Mountains of Books” – a Second Good Friday Sermon, Preached on April 14th, 2017, in the Evening at First Church of Coral Springs

“Mountains of Books” – a Second Good Friday Sermon, Preached on April 14th, 2017, in the Evening at First Church of Coral Springs

Revelation 20 says that there are books in heaven that contain the records of everything that every human has ever said or done.  Imagine that.  A book that contains every sin you have ever committed.  Every evil thought.  Every unkind word.  Every selfishness.  Every disobedience.  Every unfaithfulness.  Every missed opportunity to serve and share in Jesus name.  Every prideful moment.  Every sin in our lives, recorded in detail.

How many books would it take it to record the sinfulness of a single life?  Your life?  My life?

How many books would it take to record the misdeeds of every human who has ever lived?

How many volumes would be required to record the endless list of human atrocities throughout the centuries?

Page upon page, chapter upon chapter, book upon book, stacks upon stacks upon stacks upon stacks – written records of my sins and yours, alongside the sins of humanity’s best and worse – all of the Hitlers and all of the Mother Theresas.  All have sinned.

“All have sinned and fall short of the God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23)

            “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us… If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”  (I John 1:8-10)

Scriptures say that Jesus was crucified on top of a skull-shaped hill called Golgotha.  Imagine Golgotha as a giant mountain, but instead of stones, it is was an enormous pile of the books recording the sins of the world – books stacked upon books stacked upon books – with a cross on the top, and crucified savior hanging there, dying for the sins of the world, recorded at his feet.

Imagine your book, containing the record of your sin, laying at the foot of the cross.

Colossians 2:13-14 says, “You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross.”

            Of course, no one was thinking any of that the day Jesus died.  All they could see was a man dying…

  • To some, a heretic.
  • To some, a criminal.
  • To some, an enemy of the state.
  • To some, a pathetic joke.
  • To some, a friend, rabbi, and leader.
  • To some, lost hope.
  • To one, a son.

For centuries, God’s people had believed, and hoped, and prayed, and waited and waited and waited for God to send a Messiah, who would deliver them from all of their troubles.  Of course, they, like us, had mostly a worldly perspective.  This is where their problems were.  This is where they needed a savior – so, they thought – to deal with these material, worldly problems, here.

Many believed that Jesus was that man.  Some – the disciples, and others – had left home, and career, and family to follow him.  They trusted him.  They had put all of their hope in him.  They believed God was going to do something big through him.  God was, of course.  They just didn’t know what it was.  The scope of their hopes in this Jesus were just too small.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all of their hopes and dreams seemed to be confirmed.  Jesus publically announced that he was the Messiah, the King of the Jews.  The crowds welcomed him as their new king.  Everything was coming together, just as they had hoped and believed it would.

Imagine their confusion in the upper room as Jesus talked about his death.  Imagine their dismay as Jesus was arrested.  Imagine their devastation as Jesus was condemned and crucified.  Imagine their fear as they hid in the shadows.  Imagine their grief when they heard Jesus was dead – not just grief for the death of their friend and leader.  Imagine the grief for the loss of all of their hopes and dreams – for themselves, and for their nation. Now, seemingly lost forever.

What would they do now?

If the Messiah could be defeated, now what?

Or, if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, who was he?

Jesus, of course had always been clear that his life would come to a violent, sacrificial end.  But, the disciples never seemed to understand…

As Jesus began his ministry, his cousin John pointed to him saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”  Lambs, we know, are sacrificed.

            From the beginning Jesus defined discipleship, saying, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  No one understood crosses symbolically, or metaphorically.  Everyone had seen crosses lining the highways, with corpses of condemned criminals hanging from them.  Why didn’t they understand that Jesus was speaking literally?

            Almost as soon as the disciples figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, he told them, “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”   

The disciples never seemed to grasp any of it.  When Jesus died, it seems like it was the last thing they could have possibly expected.  They had no idea that he was accomplishing something far greater than anything they could image, hope, or dream.  This was bigger than a single moment in history, or a single nation.  Jesus was carrying upon his shoulders the weight of the sin and brokenness of the entire history of the world – every single act of hatred, selfishness, apathy, pride, prejudice, violence, greed, etc. – since Adam and Eve, to this very moment.

All they could see, on that first Good Friday was a defeated man – and the end of their hopes.

Makoto Fujimura writes, “If we care to know how deep the suffering of Christ goes – and how vast and even violent is the restoration process through Christ’s suffering – then we had better start with knowing the dark, cruel reality of the fallen world.  If we care to embrace hope despite what encompasses us, the impossibility of life and the inevitability of death, then we must embrace a vision that will endure beyond our failures…  The stench of death all around us will remind us that it is despite ourselves that grace and restoration can take place.” 

Undeniably, Jesus died a cruel death at the hands of evil people.  But, look closer.  There, at the cross, was the world’s greatest horrors – all of the wars, all of the acts of terror, all of the crimes, all of the famines, all of the disasters, all of the diseases, all of the genocides, all of the betrayals, all of the brokenness, all of the senseless and meaningless suffering and deaths, all of the greed and corruption, all of the loss of innocence, all of the victimization and subjugation and enslavement of peoples, all of prejudices and injustices, all of the displacement of innocent peoples, all of the addiction, all of the ruthless dictators and corrupt governments – ISIS, Heroshima and Nagasaki, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Ponsey schemes, the porn industry, the Cambodian Killing Fields, Chernobyl, 9/11, organized crime, the Holocaust, the Crusades, Allepo – all of it.

There, at the base of the cross, imagine mounds of swords and spears no one has ever bothered to beat into plowshares; tanker trucks filled with toxic waste; stockpiles of banned chemical weapons; the cargo of druglords; the Mother of All Bombs; crates of last year’s fashions, that are “so last year”; truckloads of porn; tonnage of the chains and shackles of the enslaved; stacks and stacks of false testimonies; piles of cash wasted on frivolities that could have been used to help the poor.  Picture the mount of Golgotha surrounded by billboards displaying for the world your deepest and darkest secrets and fantasies.

And, all of your sin and brokenness.  And, all of mine.

Makoto Fujimura writes, “Our own acts of terrorism toward God drove Jesus to the cross.  Jesus’ slain body absorbed our anger and defiance, but more important, it absorbed God’s just anger toward us.  In that moment, all that was fair and beautiful in Christ became the hideous stench of a dying beast.  Beauty was literally pulverized, destroyed, and the Eternal experienced the decay of death.”

As horrific as the scene must have been for those watching it, it was far worse than anyone could have imagined.  Jesus wasn’t only dying an unfair, excruciating form of death.  He was bearing horrors too great to imagine.  And…  And…  In his very own flesh a work of restoration for the very worst of humanity – including yours and mine – had begun.

2 Corinthians 5:21 says, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

            Romans 5:17-19 says, “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.  Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.”

Calvary was not just a place of crucifixion – it was the birth place of your transformation and mine.  Calvary is the fertile soil where God planted a seed of transformation.  Jesus said, Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  (John 12:24)

            Long before I knew what Good Friday meant, I worked, during my High School years, at a farm supply, feed and seed store.  According to the old Farmer’s Almanac, Good Friday is the best day to plant your Spring garden.  Holy Week was our busiest week of the year.  Long before I knew anything about Jesus and the cross, I knew that Good Friday is a day for planting seeds, and waiting for something new to be produced.

Yes, there is a record of your sin.  It laid there among the rubble of Calvary, keeping Jesus’ cross firmly in place.  But, it has been completely covered in the precious blood of Christ, as it flowed down from his cross, fertilizing the ground of the new creation.  Whatever you have done, and whatever has been done you; whatever you have broken, and whatever has been broken in you; whatever disasters you have caused, or have endured; all of your shortcomings; all of your selfishness; all of your sin; all of it; all of it was there on Calvary; and, all of it, every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every page, every chapter, and every book has been completely covered in the sacrificial blood of Jesus.

No matter how good, how special, how holy you think you are, before Jesus died on the cross, all of us would have been devastated to see the record of our sins.  But, now, when the books are opened, the record of your sin, and mine, has been completely erased – washed whiter than snow.  All that once was recorded in our books, has planted in the soil of Calvary, waiting to blossom into something new.


“Into your hands I commit my spirit” – A Good Friday Sermon Preached on April 14, 2017 at First Church of Coral Springs

“Into your hands I commit my spirit” – A Good Friday Sermon Preached on April 14, 2017 at First Church of Coral Springs

Undeniably, the ordeal Jesus endured was horrific.  Starting with an arrest; then a long night without sleep – full of hate, ugliness, condemnation and abuse; dragged from the Temple to Pilate, to Herod, and then back to Pilate; abuse and mockery at the hands of cruel Roman soldiers; rejection from the crowds who shouted, “crucify him!”; a severe beating, that likely nearly killed him; a crown of thorns shoved down on his head; and then a long walk to Golgotha, carrying his own cross on shoulders that had already been flayed open by the soldier’s whip.  All of that before he was even nailed to the cross.

When they got to Golgotha, long nails were driven through Jesus’ hands and feet, affixing him to the cross, and then his cross was raised to vertical, leaving Jesus dangling from just three nails, driven through his flesh.  For six, long, excruciating hours, he would suffer unspeakable agony, as life was slowly drained from his body.  Few deaths are as gruesome or humiliating as crucifixion.

And, while he hung upon his cross, his disciples had abandoned him and the leaders of his own religion mocked him.

As we have heard, we know he thirst.

As darkness covered the land, we know that he may have wondered if even God had abandoned him.

But, as Jesus’ final moments came, Jesus appeared to have been at peace and in control.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:26)

            Fred Craddock writes, “There is nothing here of anger or doubt or thrashing about in the throes of death.  Rather, Luke writes of serenity, acceptance, and trust.”

John Stott writes, “It is not men who finished their brutal deed; it is he who has accomplished what he came into the world to do.  He has procured salvation for us, and made available the chief covenant blessing, the forgiveness of sins.  At once the curtain of the temple, which for centuries had symbolized the alienation of sinners from God, was torn in two from top to bottom, in order to demonstrate that the sin-barrier had been thrown down by god, and the way into his presence was open.”

As Jesus died, it is abundantly clear that he was in control.  While he was clearly the casualty of terrible human cruelty, Jesus was no victim.  He was on the cross because he had chosen to give his life for us, sacrificially.  He was satisfied that he had accomplished what he came to do.

It would seem that Jesus had always known that his life would end this way.

As Jesus began his ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, pointed to him saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” 

            From the beginning, Jesus defined discipleship, saying, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  No one understood crosses symbolically, or metaphorically.  Everyone had seen crosses lining the highways, with the corpses of condemned criminals hanging from them.

            Almost as soon as the disciples figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, he told them, “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” 

            Even as he prayed the night before his death, in the Garden of Gethsemane -throwing himself to the ground, sweating drops of blood in distress, and pleading for God to “let this cup pass” – we see Jesus calmly leaving the Garden and handing himself over to the Temple guards, trusting that in God’s will to be done.

Again, John Stott writes, No-one took his life from him, he insisted; he was going to lay it down of his own accord.”

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The Message version says, “Father, I place my life in your hands!”

            Isn’t that what we are called to do?  To place the totality of our lives in the hands of God, just as Jesus did?

            Scripture says that Jesus said these words “into your hands I commit my spirit,” in a “loud voice.”  They weren’t an embarrassed whisper, or a pathetic whimper.  They weren’t mumbled in weakness.  In his strongest voice, Jesus loudly projected, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”; words spoken in strength and confidence in the one who was about to receive his Spirit.  Even has his physical strength came to its end, his strength of faith in God was unwavering. As he was betrayed, abused, abandoned and killed by everyone else, he knew, HE KNEW he could trust his spirit, in that vulnerable moment, in the faithful hands of his heavenly father.  He surrendered his spirit to God, and he breathed his last.

Over and over in the Old Testament, the phrase, “into your hands,” refers to when God put the destiny of foreign rulers and armies – enemies – into the hands of Israel’s leaders.  In other words, God gave them control over their enemy’s destinies and their lives.  But, in this case, placing his spirit in God’s hands was nothing to fear.

It would seem that as Jesus knew death was near, Psalm 31 came to mind…

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

Jesus spoke those words, and then breathed his last breath.

There’s something profound in this statement.  “He breathed his last.”  The word for breath, in Greek, is the same word for “spirit.”  The word is “pneuma.”  Its Hebrew counterpart is “ruach.”  When God created the first human, from the dust of the ground, God breathed his breath, his ruach, his spirit, into the human to give it life.  The life within every human being, including Jesus, is the life-giving Spirit of God.

Let’s take that even further.  Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, by the same Holy Spirit.  At Jesus baptism, he was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Early in his ministry, at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

            Though we all have the gift of the spirit in us, Jesus uniquely knew what it means to be alive in the spirit.  For thirty-three years, he lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in complete trust in his heavenly Father.  And, now, now that his work was done, as his human life was ebbing, he knew that he could safely return his spirit to his Father.

And he breathed his last.

It occurred to me, this week, that most images of Jesus on the cross, show him with his head lowered, and eyes closed.  In other words, most crucifixes portray a dead Jesus.  But, for the vast majority of the time that Jesus hung on the cross, he was alive.  I’m sure he was in agony.  I’m sure he was too weak to hold his head up.  I’m sure his eye-lids drooped after that long sleepless night, and as weakness overcame him.

But, Jesus faced his destiny with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his accusers with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his cross with eyes wide open.

And, in his final moments, Jesus embraced his death, with eyes wide open.

Moments, later, he would open his eyes again, and behold the face of his Father.

            Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.