Sunday, November 30, 2008

King of Glory Psalm 24 First Sunday of Advent

I. The Journey Begins
I think the starting gun was fired at 4am at Kohl’s when they threw open their doors and began the Christmas dash. Its time! Time to hunt for a parking space at Penn Square Mall. Time to being the search for the perfect Christmas gift. Time for office parties with their seemingly endless parade of chocolate covered sugar saturated cakes and pies. Time to try to carefully wrap each package with the full knowledge that the wrapping will be ripped to shreds within second of its giving. Time to send Christmas cards – or Christmas emails – or Christmas text messages and Facebook greetings. It seems that Christmas the demands of the cultural Christmas make us run faster and faster, sprinting toward the finish line.

But in this place, I hope we slow down just a bit and take a journey toward a babe born in a manger. In the mad dash to get it all done we may miss the wonder and the joy that the Advent season has to offer. The incidental stress of the Christmas dash can prevent us from connecting with God and each other.

It is easy to get caught up in the rhythm of hearing the same story and the same passages that somehow this season, this celebration becomes common place. So, this year, we will pare the familiar passages with others from Scripture that can help us come to Advent with fresh ears. So I invite you to join with me on a journey to Bethlehem and an encounter with God in flesh. Our journey begins in Psalm 24 and its call to the King of Glory.

II. It All Belongs to God vs. 1-2
Our look at Psalm 24 begins with verses 1-2 and the word that it all belongs to God. Hear with me: 1 The earth is the LORD’s, and all its fullness, The world and those who dwell therein. 2 For He has founded it upon the seas, And established it upon the waters.

My first car was a 1975 MGB convertible. I will never forget the moment I knew that car was mine - never mind that the engine was blown, that the oil pan was sitting in the passengers’ seat, and that you had to open the trunk with a screw driver. It was mine!

The psalmist deals with the ownership issue up front. The psalmist calls us to remember selflessly that all that is belongs to God…the earth and all that fills it, the seas and all the swim in it, the earth and all who live upon it. This is a pretty comprehensive list. This belief demands a radical shift from the consumer driven culture that claims us. Commercial after commercial proclaim with boldness that it is all about “us,” about what we need, what we think we need, what we want, what we imagine that we just might want, and what our neighbor has that we think we desire as well. This has led to a flawed theology of ownership and stewardship that speaks to what we give to God. If we believe that it all belongs to God then our stewardship our care of what God has given US - our tithes and offerings become what return to God what belongs to God for the sake of God’s kingdom. It shifts our giving from a sense of indebtedness to a demanding God to an act of worship and joy that lifts and transforms our lives.

There is a story I saw on the news this week. Maybe some of you heard it too. The story moved me and reminded what happens when we look beyond ourselves. It is the story of the young boy in Seattle, Washington. Doctors gave 11-year-old Brenden Foster two weeks to live. Those two weeks were up on Wednesday. On Friday, he shared his last wish. Not yet a teenager, Brenden's time to die has come. "I should be gone in a week or so," he said. Brenden was the kid who ran the fastest, climbed the highest and dreamed of becoming a marine photographer. Leukemia took away all those things, but not his dying wish to help others.

"He's always thought about others. Never complained about having to go through this, ever," said his mother, Wendy Foster. When Brenden was first diagnosed with leukemia, he and his mom began a new tradition. Every night they list three positive things that happened during the day, and they have to share a laugh. A chuckle will do, Brenden said, but a fake laugh will never do.

In the last days of his life, it was a homeless camp, namely Nickelsville that captured the boy's heart. "I was coming back from one of my clinic appoints and I saw this big thing of homeless people, and then I thought I should just get them something," he said.

Brenden is too ill to leave his bed and feed the homeless. He walked into an emergency room last December and hasn't walked since. But Brenden's wish will not go unfulfilled. A group planned to gather in his honor on Friday night to make sandwiches and deliver them to the homeless. "We're making 200 sandwiches -- half ham and cheese, and half peanut butter and jelly. He didn't want them all to be peanut butter and jelly in case somebody was allergic to peanut butter," said Jennifer Morrison, one of the participants. "They're probably starving, so give them a chance," said Brenden.

Brenden had the opportunity to hear the story of his hope inspired others to action in the hours before his death. In a moment when others might have been tempted to focus on themselves, to demand their whim be fulfilled, Brenden instead found a heart for others founded on a belief that others mattered.

The earth is the LORD’s, and all its fullness, The world and those who dwell therein. If we truly believe that it all belongs to God how might it change how we give, how we share, how we invest in others and pour our lives into the worship of God?

III. Clean Hands and a Pure Heart vs. 3-6
When we believe that it all belongs to God and that we are His, we can not help but be drawn into God’s presence, to slow down and come to God in worship. The Psalmist sings; 3 Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, Nor sworn deceitfully. 5 He shall receive blessing from the LORD, And righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6 This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek Him, Who seek Your face. Selah

We can almost hear the voices of the pilgrims making their way to the temple rhythmically calling out; 3 Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place? The answer rings out 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart. This is a loaded definition. The Old Testament scholar, James Luther Mays, tells us; “The adjectives ‘clean’ and ‘pure’ do not belong to the Old Testament vocabulary of ritual purification; they are ethical terms. Clean hands are those innocent of wrong against others. The pure heart thinks and will only (fealty-author/faithfulness and fidelity to God-interpretation).
In other words, what the Pslamist sings is not a call to a religion of going through the motions, but a faith that draws us to God. It beckons those who come to worship to seek God’s face and to God’s blessing must prepare themselves and chooses to live lives of faithfulness to others and to God.

Perhaps this call in never more evident when we come to celebrate the great gift of God found in the birth of Christ. We can not be trapped in the consumer call of the contemporary Christmas. We are called to seek a gift that can not be contained by paper and bow – but draws us to God’s side. Perhaps we can echo the psalmist; This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek Him, Who seek Your face

IV. Lift up Your Heads and See vs. 7-10
So I invite you to lift up your heads and see! The Psalmist sings; 7 Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. 8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, The LORD mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, O you gates! Lift up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory. Selah

This King of Glory will claim a manger rather than a palace, swaddling clothes rather than regal robes; a life of service rather than of one of comfort. Come now and worship the King of Glory that has come and will come again. Lift up your heads from the grind of the Christmas crush and see the one who comes.

V. Coming to the King
Its time! Time to hunt for a parking space at Penn Square Mall. Time to being the search for the perfect Christmas gift. Time for office parties with their seemingly endless parade of chocolate covered sugar saturated cakes and pies. Time to try to carefully wrap each package with the full knowledge that the wrapping will be ripped to shreds within second of its giving. Time to send Christmas cards – or Christmas emails – or Christmas text messages and Facebook greetings. It seems that Christmas the demands of the cultural Christmas make us run faster and faster, sprinting toward the finish line.

It is time to stop the sprint and come to the King. He offers a life of redemption and the way to God. He offers us healing and hope, not clutter, stress and confusion. He comes to tell us that we were created to be children of God, created for relationship and for life and life with God. This Christmas seek the perfect gift – not one that can be found in Macy’s or Dillards, but in a manger in a small dusty Mid Eastern city. Come find the perfect gift of God, the King of Glory.

[1] “Boy Shares Heartbreaking Last Wish” available online on November 26, 2008 at
[2] Mays, James Luther, Psalms, Interpretations: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (John Knox Press: Louisville, 1989), p.121.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Consuming Fire Hebrews 12:28-29

This morning offers a special worship experience at First Baptist Church. Our choir and instrumentalist will lead us through a service of thanksgiving. It is not a service of pilgrims and indians. Rather it is a day of thanksgiving for who God is and what God means in our lives. Below is a homily that I will bring as a part of the service.
Grace and Peace, Tom
“A Consuming Fire”
Hebrews 12:28-29

Wow! This morning we have already experienced a remarkable day in worship. In song, scripture, and prayer we have rejoiced in the life and faith we find through Christ Jesus. We now come to hear what God might say to us. Our passage this morning is found in Hebrews, the 12th chapter, verses 28 and 29. These two verses speak well into a moment like this one. Hear it with me. 28Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29for our "God is a consuming fire."

We have a Thanksgiving family tradition that I am going to encourage you to consider when you sit at the table with others in just a little while. The tradition is that we go around the table and each share what we are thankful for this year. I remember as I child being thankful for my bicycle and my puppy dog, but as I grew older I came to appreciate the people that filled my life and gift of God that made me a child of God. This probably became clearer to me in my season as a missionary when Beth, the kids, and I held all of our worldly belongings in a dozen footlockers that could be shipped anywhere in the world in seemingly 48 hours or less. Our home, our furniture, even our car belonged to someone else. Now days there are more things that claim and clutter our lives, and sometimes I think we are a little less for it. There was a surprising freedom in having to be more dependent on God and others. I hear this kind of freedom when our passage in Hebrews begins; Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful. The writer understands that our rejoicing – our thanksgiving is born in something that is not shaken by the flutter of the stock market, burned in a brushfire, or broken by a tornado. Our thankfulness is founded in receiving a kingdom – a place in God’s family – that is safe and secure and can sustain the struggles of real life.

This kind of thanksgiving has a predictable result. The writers sees it and writes; and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. Worship, like this morning, should act as the normal, natural response to our thankfulness. If you can imagine, it would mean that every worship experience is a service of thanksgiving. I love how Charles Trentham, a Baptist scholar from the previous era sees this part of our passage. He says; “Worship is impossible until we feel the grandeur, the majesty, and the wholly otherness of God. When we dwell on these qualities, a reverent awe will fall over our souls.”
[1] The songs that we have heard this morning witness to the majesty and wholly otherness of God. They summoned us to worship, to come into the presence of God with awe and reverence.

We have been tempted to claim that reverence is being quiet and still in worship, sitting on our hands, stilling our spirits, so that worship might fit comfortably in our cultural context. This is simply not what the passage is talking about. Instead, the speaks of something radically different. Psalm 5:7 tells us: But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple. The prophet Jeremiah pronounces: “To this day they have not humbled themselves or shown reverence, nor have they followed my law and the decrees I set before you and your fathers.” (44:10) The idea of coming to worship God in awe and reverence demands we come with the humility that God is God and we are not – that we need God – that our relationship with God is not just a pleasant addition to our lifestyle – but the defining factor. It is the kind of reverence that draws us to our knees, acknowledging our desperate need for the mercy and grace of God. It is the kind of awe that understands the purity and the holiness of God and claims the wonder that God has chosen to make us his children through Jesus Christ. The writer makes this clear as he finishes this passage.

He closes with the great phrase, for our "God is a consuming fire." No, I am not claiming this phrase because the actual fire two doors down the street on Robinson this morning. This phrase is drawn from Deuteronomy 4:24 and in its original context was offered as a stern warning – a pronouncement of judgement for those outside of the law of God. But we need to hear it very differently in this context. The writer of Hebrews uses this passage as a transition between words of challenge and words of encouragement. Instead of the picture of warning of being consumed by the fire of God’s purity and judgement, we are invited to claim the picture of a way of life where God’s way and our way become one in the same. We are so consumed in and by our relationship with God that it impacts every moment, every decision, and every act. We become so consumed by our relationship with God that we the purity of God burns away anything that might separate us from the presence of God – the will of God. It means that the presence of God in our lives burning life a fire within us.

So this morning and this Thanksgiving I invite you to REJOICE! To celebrate a kingdom that can not be shaken – and a God who is worthy of our reverence and awe. Come and be claimed by a consuming fire of faith that will fill you with thanksgiving and summons you into the presence of God.

[1] Trentham, Charles A., Hebrews, The Broadman Bible Commentary: Volume 12, (Broadman Press: Nashville, 1972), p.91.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Baptist Tent Grows Smaller

This week state Baptist conventions in North Carolina and Georgia made decisions to shrink the Baptist tent in their states in the name of doctrinal purity. In Georgia they decided to reject funding from a church that has given millions to the convention over their 168 year relationship together. The cause – the church dare call a woman as its pastor. In North Carolina they decided to eliminate the option for churches to give to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as a part of its missions giving to through the state convention. The cause – CBF is perceived as outside the theological tent of the hard right leadership. Why would the pastor of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City care about these two decisions? The reason I care about the action in Georgia is because the pastor that was targeted in their action is Julie Pennington-Russell. She is a friend of mine and a great pastor. The historic relationship between the convention and First Baptist Decatur and the quality of Julie’s magnifies the narrowed mindedness and short sightedness of the convention leaders.

The reason I care about the action in North Carolina is that I am a former NC Baptist who is a graduate of a NC Baptist university, who was called to ministry in a NC Baptist church, and who served four Baptist churches in NC; the fourth of which was a church plant supported by the BSCNC. I am 45 and am old enough to remember the days in NC Baptist life where we were defined by our relationship with Christ, rather than someone else’s desire for doctrinal purity. We were a theologically and politically diverse state that was united in our desire to reach our state and our world with the Good News of Jesus, rather than focused on deciding who belonged in or out of the tent. Our broad tent allowed Baptist from across the diversity of the state to serve together for the sake of Christ. I am sorry that the hard right leaders forgot what made us who we were together, and that the “young guns” are too young to remember what it looked like.

I now claim the pulpit once held by Hershel Hobbs, the great architect of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. I have come to cherish the historical role he played in Baptist life and the voice he brought to important decisions. Everything I have read about him and every story I have read about him within these walls tell me how far we have strayed from our historical footings. We witness the hard right continuing to try to make the Baptist tent more exclusive in an era where the vast majority of Baptist churches are plateaued or declining. Perhaps rather than continue to wage a culture war over the doctrinal purity their – and our – efforts would be better spent focusing on bring a witness for Christ in word and deed to our communities and our world. I am thankful to pastor a church who claims this passion.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Wake Up! Matthew 25:1-13 NKJV

The following sermon was delivered at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City on November 9, 2008. It deals with the "end of the age" and the Second Coming of Christ. It is my hope that it addresses some of the uses and abuses of these themes in our pop religious culture. I invite your thoughts.
Grace and Peace, Tom

Wake Up!

I. A Look At the Second Coming
This morning I carry us into a scriptural conversation that is honestly a little uncomfortable for me. The problem is not what the Bible has to say to us, but how what the Bible says has been twisted and turned to shape the theology and worldview of the many. From almost the moment Christ ascended into heaven people have been wondering when He was coming back, when is the end, and when is the beginning of the Kingdom of God? The questions are sincere and legitimate, but my concern is that as people have claimed the heart of these questions as tools of spiritual misinformation and manipulation. Throughout history we have heard voice of concern, but in the last 100 years these voices have moved from the edges of orthodoxy into the core of American religious culture.

· About the time this sanctuary was dedicated The Scofield Reference Bible was release, the cross referenced verses and an amazing calendar show his perception of the seven epochs of history that end with the return of Jesus. The publication of this study Bible set off a firestorm of sermons and pamphlets on pre-millennialism and the second coming. Sermons on hell fire and future damnation rang out across the land.

. Many hear remember The Late, Great Planet Earth, the title of a best-selling 1970 book co-authored by
Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson

· In the 80’s we heard 88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988 by Edgar C

· In more recent days we have all heard about
Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series.

· Even now offers a series of books asking the question, “Are we in the End times?”

How do we deal with the sincere questions without being pulled into confusion of pop religious culture? My best answer is to allow Jesus and the witness of the New Testament to speak to us without the cultural clutter. In Matthew 24 we hear Jesus speaking clearly to the signs of End of the Age. He paints a vivid picture of a time of confusion, conflict, and chaos. But salted throughout his description he pronounces, 36 “No one knows about that day or hour,” and 42 “keep watch, because you do not know what day your Lord will come,” and “so you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour you do not expect him.” You can almost feel the stares of those gathered around Jesus. Then, as he so often did, he tells a parable from every day life to help them understand.

II. A Parable of Preparedness vs. 1-12
A few moments ago we listened as LaJuanda Speegle read the parable of the 10 bridesmaids to us. In the telling of the parable Jesus lifts a common scene from Jewish life at the time. A wedding was a two stage affair. The first stage was the betrothal. It was much more than our modern version of engagement; it could only be broken by divorce. Our parable emerges from the second stage, the marriage itself.
[1] The wedding ceremony was preceded by a grand procession where the bridegroom gathered the wedding party. The journey from house to house could run late, late into the night. The wedding party waited with anticipation. You had to be a part of the procession to be a true part of the wedding party. In our parable we find that five of the 10 were prepared and had all the supplies they needed to fulfill their part of the commitment to be included. We soon discover that the other five were not prepared. That evening the procession was late and the ten fell asleep. When the cry echoed out that the bridegroom was approaching they all awoke, the first five brighten their lamps and stood ready to join the grand procession. The other five discovered the oil in their lamps were out. They asked the first five to borrow some of theirs, only to be turned away. They scampered to the oil merchants to buy more, and by the time they returned they had missed the parade. They ran to the site of the house for the wedding only to discover that it was already closed. The begged to get in, but it was too late.

When you first look at the parable I find there are a couple of interpretative temptations. The first is to get mad at the first five for not sharing their oil. Weren’t these other five their friends – maybe even their relatives? Why would they be so selfish and not share? You need to understand that there is no excuse for running out of oil. The maidens would have anticipated that the bridegroom would be delayed. It was a normal part of the process. You also need to know that the oil in the lamps only lasted about 15 minutes. You would have to bring oil to replenish your lamp. There is no way it they would last long enough for you to be ready.
[2] The reality for the five wise women was that if they had shared their oil and the bridegroom was further delayed and their lamps ran out, they too would have been excluded from the wedding party.
The second temptation is to get mad at the man at the door. Surely not having enough oil was a forgivable act. Surely he could make a cultural exception for them and let them in. No! If the five had so little regard for this grand event that they did not prepare themselves to be a part, then they should not – could not – come in. Since they missed the bridal procession, they truly are not members of the bridal party and so are unrecognized by the hosts.
[3] There was no place for them in the wedding party. With the parable hanging in the air Jesus delivers the punch line.

III. Ready and Waiting vs. 13/Revelation 3:3
“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming." Or as it is reported in the interpretative translation The Message, "So stay alert. You have no idea when he might arrive. Older translations would cry “wake up, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” The first generation of believers lived in hope that Jesus would return in their lifetime. They waited in eager expectation. This parable was one of the tools the early proclaimers used to let the people know to hang on, to be prepared, to live lives of expectation. John offered the persecuted church words from Jesus in Revelation that echoed this same theme. In Revelation 3:3 John reports, Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. The call is not to live lives of fear, hunkering down and trying to survive until Jesus comes home like we witnessed in Montana in the early 90’s. It is to live our lives in a way where we are prepared.

It seems that each generation has claimed both the fear and the hope of the second coming. Generation after generation has groaned that it can not get morally worse than it is. And then that generation passes and another takes its place. Generation after generation has longed for the Kingdom of God and yearned to see the clouds break and Jesus break again into our world. And then that generation passes and another takes its place. Generation after generation listens to voices proclaiming “the end is near”. And then that voice and that generation passes and another takes its place. When is the end of time? When is Jesus coming back? How long must we wait. The testimony of scripture is that regardless of what the religious pop culture may proclaim, we will not know the day nor the hour, which it will come like a thief in the night. Our call is not to know when but to live our lives in a way where we are prepared; lives of faithfulness, lives of spiritual vitality.

This is the heart of what Jesus was saying. It is easy to get caught in the trap of the overuse of allegory with this parable and try to assign each character and each image a meaning beyond the bounds of the parable. If you did, you would be in good historical company. But in this moment, I want us to claim just the picture of the oil and hear that no one can “loan” us their spiritual journey or resources- now one can “loan” us the power or the depths of their relationship with God. We worship and study with others, but we remain individually accountable for our own spiritual vitality. Our place in the parable is the waiting members of the wedding party….ready and waiting. Not running ahead or being captured by the speculation of others, but listening instead for the authentic voice to beckons us to join the grand procession.

IV. Back to the Fields
One of my favorite moments with the disciples occurs just after Jesus had given them the Great Commission and ascended into heaven, and they stand their heaven gazing. Acts 1:9-11 tell us; 9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11"Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." The Ogburn translation would say, “Boys, why are you standing here? I think he gave you something to do!” I have been asked by those who have a passion about the end of time if I am a pre-millennialist or an amillennialist trying to find an easy theological peg to place me on. After my childhood journey with those who used and abused the theology of the end of time and the second coming looking for a quick and easy emotional religious response – I have decided that I am a pan-millennialist – that it will all pan out in the end. I believe that our call is to come down from the mountain top with the disciples and go to work – to be like the wise maidens and be prepared. Rather than to found on a mountain top waiting on Jesus, I want to be found in the field, at the task I have been given, and have to be summoned away.

I bring you good news. The second coming of Jesus is assured. We need not worry about the day nor the hour, but it the promise is secure.
I bring you good news. The end of the story is written. All who claim Christ as Lord will spend eternity in the loving embrace of God.
I bring you good news. You are invited to wake up and live full and vibrant lives of faith that prepare you for your place in the grand procession.
I bring you good news. The fields are white for harvest. Pray therefore that the Lord of the harvest will send more workers into the harvest field – and then go and join them.

[1] Homiletics commentary on the passage dated 11/6/2005.
[2] Witherington, Ben, III, Matthew, Smyth and Hewys Bible Commentary, (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2006, p.460.
[3] Homiletics commentary on passage dated 11/10/1996.