This sermon was preached at the Norwin Church of the Nazarene in Irwin, PA, on Sunday, 9/25/22. All Scripture references are from the New International Version, as accessed at BibleGateway.com.
Yesterday, I had an eye exam. All the tests that the optometrist put me through to check my vision were high tech and impressive. I’m glad that my eyes are still strong and have no ailments that she could detect, other than my ongoing farsightedness, which requires me to wear glasses to read. The experience got me thinking about what ailments can affect our sight. One condition is glaucoma. According to my optometrist, glaucoma is tunnel vision. Little by little, and usually with a person not even noticing, peripheral vision – everything off to the left and right – begins to disappear. Soon, vision deteriorates until all a person can see is limited to a narrow band in front of them.
In Luke 4, Jesus met a group of people who suffered from gospel glaucoma. They lived in the very town where Jesus grew up, the town of Nazareth. This was a tiny farming village, perched high on a hill, with probably only 200-400 people living there. It’s little wonder that when Philip told Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael replied: “Can any good thing come of out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). As descendants of Abraham, they were confident that God’s blessings were for them, but didn’t seem to realize that their spiritual outlook had become too narrow. Jesus was determined to help them understand that they were suffering from tunnel vision. To help focus our thoughts, let’s answer three questions raised by the story of our Lord’s rejection at Nazareth:
My younger brother, Chad, worked in tech support. Sometimes I’ll call him when my computer gets cranky. If my computer were a car, then he’s like the mechanic or technician who knows his way around under the hood and gets his hands greasy. But Chad would admit that often the best solution to a computer problem is simple: Reboot!
A one-word summary to Paul’s message in Colossians 3:1-11 is exactly that: Reboot. Paul details the glitches, the things that are going wrong, then he offers the fix, the divine reboot that makes all the difference.
First, let’s set the stage.
At the end of Colossians 2, beginning in v. 13, Paul had already written of the futility of a rules-based religion. Bodily discipline and pious self-denial only treat the symptoms and not the disease. He concludes in v. 23 – “They provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.”
Now in chapter 3, Paul – who himself had been the most zealous of rule keepers as a Pharisee – shows us a different way, a life focused not on the keeping of rules but on the new life that only Christ can give. And so he begins in v. 1 –
“Since you have been raised to new life in Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand.”
Note the passive voice. He doesn’t say “since you have raised yourself to a new life in Christ.” Rather, “since you have been raised…” Only God can do the job! Christianity is not a self-improvement program. We are forgiven and transformed not by what we do, but by what God in Christ has done and is doing in our lives. The word for this is grace.
Because of God’s grace, his power at work in Christ and therefore working inside of us, we are able to do what Paul says next: “Set your sights on the realities of heaven.”
Steven Covey wrote Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the habits is this: “Work with the end in mind.”
Set your sights – Paul says – on the realities of heaven, our end, our goal, our objective.
My work as a hospital chaplain has brought into sharp relief what Paul is talking about. In pre-COVID times, I’ve stood with families by bedsides when they said their goodbyes to a beloved and godly grandmother about to meet Jesus. I sat with two twenty-something sons as they accompanied their dad to death’s door, tearfully telling him all that he had meant to them. He was a churchgoing and loving father who obviously had raised his sons well. The comfort that faith brings in those moments has no price-tag.
Work with the end in mind. Set your sights on the realities of heaven. In verse 3, he reminds us that our “life is hidden with Christ in God,” then in verse 4 affirms that when Christ returns, we also will share in his glory. What a promise!
I preached this sermon at the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (L.T. Marangu campus) on Thursday, May 30.
Text: Ecclesiastes 7:1-12 (New Living Translation)
This year, our theme is “With Christ on the Way.” If we could step into a time machine and travel back and join Jesus on the dusty roads of Galilee, Judea, and Samaria, what would he teach us?
We know that Jesus loved the Scriptures. Often, he cited Deuteronomy. What we call the New Testament didn’t yet exist. For Jesus, the Scriptures were the 39 books of our Old Testament.
Today, I’d like to look at a passage from one of those books in Jesus’ Bible. Let’s take a look at Ecclesiastes 7:1-12. From this portion of the Jewish Wisdom Literature, we draw the title for this message: “Solomon’s 8 Lessons for the Journey.”
Lesson # 1 – Guard your reputation.
Verse 1 ends with a depressing statement: “The day of death is better than the day of birth” (1b, NIV). Here’s a good example of the Bible not requiring that we always have to be in a cheerful mood. The Bible is real; sometimes we’re just discouraged, and that’s O.K. With God’s help and the help of others, work through those tough times. Things do get better!
But what I’d like to focus on is the first half of the verse. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “A good reputation is better than fine perfume” (Ecc. 1:1a).
I’ve worn a white shirt before and spilled spaghetti sauce on it. It takes a lot of effort to get rid of the stain. I’ve had to learn the hard way that the best policy when it comes to white shirts and spaghetti sauce is to cover myself first with a towel or serviette.
And so it is with our reputation. Once it’s stained, it’s hard to get the stain out. We all need to think twice before we join in activities that will tarnish our reputation.
Lesson # 2 — Tough times have a way of refining us.
There’s a little ditty that I learned somewhere along the way:
Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you!
Verses 2-4 sound very much like that song. In v. 2, Solomon recommends funerals over parties. In v. 3, he ranks sorrow above laughter, then in v. 4, he compliments the person who thinks about death as being wise, while the fool thinks only about having a good time.
For the record, I don’t think we need to feel guilty about having a good time. Proverbs 17:22 says that “a joyful heart is good medicine” (NASB) and Ecclesiastes 3:4 insists that there is a time to laugh. It’s always a danger for Christians to take themselves too seriously. Laughter isn’t a sin.
So what is Solomon getting at? He’s reminding his readers that God allows death and sorrow as a means to strengthenus. Tough times have a way of refining us.
Poet Robert Browning Hamilton wrote a poem entitled “Along the Way.” Here’s what Browning observed about sorrow:
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser,
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!
(cited by Stephen J. Bennett, Ecclesiastes/Lamentations: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2010), 123.
Lesson # 3 — Accept a critique given in love, but beware of fawning.
A third lesson appears in verses 5-6: “It is better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool! Indeed, a fool’s laughter is quickly gone, like thorns crackling in a fire. This also is meaningless.”
I looked up the word “fawning.” The Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as “displaying exaggerated flattery or affection; obsequious.”
And sometimes that comes in the form of laughter. You tell a joke, and this is the person who laughs longer than anyone else, and you wonder why. Finally, you realize that there’s some kind of a hidden agenda. It’s not that you’re so funny, it’s that they’re for some reason trying to get on your good side.
But there is a kind of criticism that is healthy. It’s a critique given from someone because they have your best interest in-mind. Solomon calls this being criticized by a wise person.
I can think of times when I was growing up that my parents offered words of critique. They saw something in my character that they knew was not healthy and that would limit my own success in-life. It was love that motivated them to speak up.
It can be painful to hear those kinds of words, but if we listen and take them to-heart, God can use them to refine us.
Note to the reader: I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at University Church of the Nazarene, at the close of “Green Week” at Africa Nazarene University.
Text: Genesis 2:15 — “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.”
On my last birthday, my younger son gifted me with a black Cross™ pen. For me, it has sentimental value, besides being a sleek pen. Now suppose that Simon (the interpreter) had no pen, and asked to borrow mine. Then a week later, he brought it back to me. But instead of returning the pen to me as he found it, in good condition, it is badly scratched. The eraser is bitten off and the ink cartridge is missing. How would I feel? You’re right. I wouldn’t feel very good about it all!
OWNERS, OR STEWARDS?
God has loaned us something far more important than a pen. God as the owner of all creation has loaned us the Earth. It doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to God.
Psalm 24:1-2 (CEB) affirms:
The Earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, too. Because God is the one who established it on the seas; God set it firmly on the waters.
Turn to your neighbor and say: “The earth is the Lord’s.”
If God is the owner, then what does that make us? We are the caretakers, the stewards.
This becomes clear in the second creation account. Michael Lodahl calls it the “worm’s eye view.” No longer is it the “bird’s eye view” of Genesis 1, with God high above the creation. In Genesis 2, God is down in the dirt. It is there that God creates the human being (Adam) after he had previously created everything else.
And now in Genesis 2:15, God – the owner of the trees and the birds, the animals and the fish – entrusts their care into the hands of the steward, the human being:
The LORD God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it (CEB).
To take care of something that belongs to someone else is called stewardship. We’re accustomed to hearing that word in relation to other things. Often, we say that our money, time, and talents are on-loan to us from God. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6:20 goes as far as to say that even our bodies belong to God:
You have been bought and paid for, so honor God with your body (CEB).
Yet we may forget that besides money, time, talents and our bodies, God has entrusted something else to us as stewards. God has entrusted to us the Earth. That’s why we speak of “Creation Care.”
Sadly, we have sometimes used the Bible as an excuse not to care for the Earth but to exploit it. The old King James Version of Genesis 1:28 speaks of “having dominion” over the Earth and “subduing” it. And historically, some took that as a license to exploit nature, to cut down trees without replanting, to pollute the Earth’s waters and foul its air. But modern translations are better. The New Living Translation says:
Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the seas, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground – everything that has life. And that is what happened (Gen. 1:29-30, NLT).
To “govern” is not to exploit. God calls humans to practice good governance, a benevolent reign.
So there you have it. We are not the owners. God is the owner of the Earth. Turn to your neighbor and say: “God is the owner.”
I preached this sermon on Thursday, September 27, 2018 in the chapel on the L.T. Marangu campus of Africa Nazarene University (Ongata-Rongai, Kenya).
N.B. – All Scripture references are from the Common English Bible.
Text: Colossians 3:12-17
Have you ever had an earworm? You know what I mean by that. Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head? Maybe it was the first song you heard when you woke up, or the last song you listened to before going to sleep at night. However it happened, it’s stuck in your brain and you can’t get away from it. At first, it was pleasant, but how that you’re hearing it for the 57th time, it’s just plain annoying. In fact, if you don’t get the song out of your head soon, it’s going to drive you crazy! What do you need? A new song, a better song. To drive out the old, find something new.
II. TRANSITION TO COLOSSIANS 3:12-17
In Colossians 3:16, Paul invites us to sing a new song, a better song. He writes:
The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
III. THE OLD SONG
Earlier in chapter 3, Paul details the sour notes of the old song. These are the dischordant strains, the off-key melodies of the life of sin and selfishness. Verse 5 lists these practices: sexual immorality, moral corruption, lust, evil desire, and greed. Then v. 8 adds anger, rage, malice, slander, and obscene language. Verse 9 wraps up the list with a simple command: “Don’t lie to each other.”
These 11 practices, this dirty laundry list, make up the old song we used to sing before we came to Christ. But now, God has given us the Holy Spirit. The Lord has put a new song in our hearts, a better song. Verse 2 puts it this way:
Think about the things above and not things on earth. You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (CEB).
If we continue in our old ways, in the ways of sin and disobedience to God, there will be a price to pay. I’ve never met a person who practices the 11 sins Paul enumerates who in the long run is well-adjusted and who lives in peace and contentment. And the reason is simple: Every one of the practices mentioned – in one way or another – destroys community.
This is Africa, where Ubuntu teaches us that “I am because we are.” Yet greed, moral corruption, rage, and slander (to mention a few) push others away. And in the end, this old bitter song on our lips will have people plugging their ears so they don’t have to listen to it. You will be singing off-key, all alone.
I preached this sermon on Sunday morning September 9, 2018 at the University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene Univerity (Ongata-Rongai, Kenya). It was part of the “prayer” theme announced for the month of September.
Hezekiah has always amazed me. He is that rare king in Israel’s history who pleased the LORD and walked with integrity. May we be like Hezekiah.
“Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: ‘LORD, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, LORD, and hear: open your eyes, LORD, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God.
It is true, LORD, that the Assyrians have laid waste these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, LORD, are God.”
His name was Dominick. He was big; I was small. He was tough; I wasn’t so tough. He stood in my way on the road, grabbed the handlebars of my bike, and sneered:
Where do you think you’re going, punk?
My little boy’s heart beat fast with fear. What do you say to someone so scary, someone much taller and stronger than you? Then I had an inspiration. “Dominick, you may be bigger than I am, but my brother is bigger than you are!” Reluctantly, he let me go.
There have alway been bullies like Dominick in our world. They strut on the world stage and throw their weight around. King Sennacherib of Assyria was one of them. He stood in the way of little nations and threatened to beat them up. 1 Kings 19:12 lists some of the nations that had crumbled before the Assyrian armies – Gozan, Harran, Rezeph, Hamath, Arpad, Lair, Sepharvaim, Hennah, and Ivvah. Like a row of dominos, one-by-one, they capitulated.
THE THREAT TO JUDAH
King Hezekiah took the threat very seriously. 2 Chronicles 32:1-5 gives a parallel account. They heard the news that the Assyrian army was coming from Lachish, so they took action. The King ordered that the water outside the city be cut off. If Sennacherib’s thirsty army was determined to lay siege to Jerusalem, then why give them something to drink when they arrived? Next, he ordered the city’s walls to be reinforced, and he added watch towers to be constructed on the walls. Finally, they made large numbers of weapons and shields.
Brothers and sisters, hear me: When faced with the enemy’s threats, don’t remain idle. You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something.
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed]. Several times today, we’ve repeated those words. But what would we say to a child who asks: “What difference does the resurrection make?” By the end of this messsage, we’ll know the answer to that question.
II. LIGHT ALWAYS FOLLOWS DARKNESS
Traditions have grown up around Easter that have little to do with the meaning of the day. The word “Easter” itself is of obscure origin. It may have come from an old English word referring to the goddess of Spring.
As a child, Easter meant wearing new clothes, a special outfit bought just for the day. Easter was also the day for the Easter Bunny who would deliver chocolates in a basket that we had to find hidden somewhere in the house. Or maybe there was an Easter egg hunt, children dashing about, looking for colored eggs.
These activities are fun for children but have little to do with the meaning of this day. And so instead of “Easter” we often now simply say “Resurrection Sunday.” For Christians, Resurrection Sunday is the surprise ending in a story that could have turned out much different, much darker. The joy and celebration of our living Christ is only meaningful when you linger at the foot of the Cross and behold the shame of a naked, lifeless Jesus. Only then does our Lord – clothed in glory and majesty, powerful and alive – stand magnificent in contrast. The bright light of Resurrection Morning is to us so precious because we have known the utter darkness of Holy Saturday.
And so here is the first answer to the question, “What difference does the Resurrection make?” It gives us hope that no matter how dark our lives may seem, light always follows darkness. The words of the song by Bill and Gloria Gaither ring true:
The amazing thing about the Bible is that it addresses nearly every area of human life. Money? It’s in there. Death? There’s plenty about death in Scripture. Sickness? The Bible talks about it. Joy? Sadness? Friendship? Salvation? God talks about those, too. Today, let’s talk about a biblical topic that preachers often avoid. Today, let’s talk about marriage and sexuality.
II. MARRIAGE AND SEX: THE ORDER MATTERS
The first thing you’ll notice is the order. I could have said “sex and marriage” and that’s often how people address it. Sex first – our world says – and then maybe we’ll get around to marriage. But God’s plan is the other way around. Marriage is to precede sex.
In the Bible, the Song of Solomon is a celebration of sexual love. But notice it’s sex within a covenant, within the bond of marriage. It’s a bride and a groom longing for each other. Some want to overlook the obvious and make that book a parable of Christ’s love for the church, but I think that is reading the Bible backwards, imposing the New Testament upon the Old. Instead, the Song of Solomon should be seen for what it is, a long poem celebrating the God-given physical aspect of married love. So today, the Christian ethic draws on the Jewish ethic, and affirms that God made sex very good, so good that it is worth protecting as something sacred, and that’s exactly what the covenant of marriage does.
Note: I preached this short message in the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi, Kenya) on December 13, 2017. Thanks to Chalé Atikonda, a BTh student at ANU, who heard the sermon and later suggested a further point, i.e. “an unusual task,” which I’ve added to this revised version.
Scripture reading: Luke 1:26-38
All Scripture citations are from the Common English Bible.
“How should a King come?”
Jimmy and Carol Owens penned these words to the popular Christmas song:
How should a King come?
Even a child knows the answer of course;
In a coach of gold with a pure white horse.
In the beautiful city in the prime of the day,
And the trumpets should cry
And the crowds make way.
And the flags fly high in the morning sun,
And the people all cheer for the sovereign one.
And everyone knows that’s the way that it’s done,
That’s the way that a king should come.
And yet the Gospel accounts of Christ’s coming to earth make it clear: God’s ways are not our ways. Today, let’s look at 7 unusual things about the Incarnation, based on Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will give birth to a son.
FIRST, GOD SENT AN UNUSUAL MESSENGER.
The appearance of angels was hardly an everyday occurrence. This is implied when Gabriel says to Mary: “Fear not.” People aren’t afraid of everyday events, but when they’re rare, they might give you a scare. Here was God’s messenger coming to deliver stupendous news. The name “Gabriel” means “God is my strength.” Here was an unusual messenger, a mighty being sent by God, and Mary took notice.
SECOND, THE ANNOUNCEMENT CAME IN AN UNUSUAL PLACE.
If Nazareth were a Kenyan town, it might make the top 100 list, but somewhere at the bottom, nestled between Nambale and Tabaka. Then again, Nazareth might not make any list, for at the time, people said: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46). Wouldn’t it make more sense for a King to come to Jerusalem, the Nairobi of its day, the main commercial and economic hub? But God’s ways are not our ways.
I preached this sermon at University Church of the Nazarene (on the campus of Africa Nazarene University, outside Nairobi, Kenya) on June 4, 2017.
Text: Acts 2:1-13
Everyone was excited about the Feast of Weeks. They called it Shavuot, or Pentecost. They counted them down with anticipation. From Passover to the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai — count ’em: 7 weeks, 50 days. And so from all over the Mediterranean basin and beyond, Jews who had scattered descended upon Jerusalem for a 2 day celebration. It was party time!
A surprising twist
Do you like surprises? On Pentecost, God did something surprising, something these Jewish pilgrims could not have expected. Now, the 120 gathered praying in the Upper Room knew what Jesus had said. Just before he ascended to heaven, the Lord had promised:
In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, CEB).
But the visitors to Jerusalem knew nothing of Jesus’ promise.
When the wind blew, when the Holy Spirit descended, when the fire lit over the heads of the 120, when they heard them speaking their languages, miraculously empowered by God, the crowds were amazed. Some thought they were drunk, even though it was only 9 a.m.!
The rest of Acts 2 records Peter’s sermon. You might call it a birthday sermon. No, it wasn’t Peter’s birthday, but if was the birthday of the Church.
3 Lessons from Pentecost
Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day on the Christian Calendar when churches around the world commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on that day so long ago. Red is the traditional color of Pentecost, symbolizing the fire of the Holy Ghost. Pentecost sometimes is overlooked. It may seem less important than Christmas (the Festival of the Incarnation) or Easter (the Festival of the Resurrection). Yet Pentecost Sunday is foundational for our faith, especially for our life together as the Church, the People of God. As we consider Acts 2, let’s look together at 3 lessons from Pentecost: