3 Lessons from Pentecost

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Note to the reader

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

Introduction

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:

Lesson 1 – We really need the Holy Spirit.

Lesson 2 – We really need a new direction.

Lesson 3 – We really need each other.

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Love is responsible (Luke 10:25-37)

greg_photo-copyNote: I preached the sermon, “Love is responsible” (Luke 10:25-37), at University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi) on Sunday, February 27, 2017. As a mnemonic, I represented the five points of responsibility by the five fingers on the hand.

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The story

A man was walking from Jerusalem down to Jericho. Suddenly, robbers attacked him. They stripped him naked and left him for dead along the side of the road.

A priest came along. He saw the man, but perhaps was afraid of making himself ceremonially unclean, so he passed by on the other side of the road and hurried on his way.

Not long after, a Levite happened by. He, too, avoided the dying man and scurried down the road on the other side.

Finally, along came a Samaritan. When he saw the beaten and bleeding man, his heart went out to him. He knelt down beside him and gave him first aid; he poured oil and wine on his wounds, then took him in his arms and placed him on his donkey. They traveled to a nearby inn where the Samaritan took care of him like one of his own family. The next morning, he paid the inn keeper two days worth of his own wages. “I have to go now,” he said. “Take this money to care for the man, and when I come back through, if the bill exceeds this amount, let me know. I’ll cover the difference.”

Jesus turned to the crowd who was listening. “Of these three, which one was a neighbor?” The religious leader who’d started the conversation replied: “The man who had mercy on him.” The Lord concluded: “Now you go and do the same.”

The context

Often we hear this story with little reference to its context. But really it’s a love story. After all, in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus was talking about love. What does it mean to love God? And what does it mean to love our neighbor?

The religious leader who prompted Jesus to tell the parable of the good Samaritan asked: “But who is my neighbor?” What did he really want to know? He was asking: For whom am I responsible? We could even say that in this parable, Jesus defines love with a single word: responsibility.  I would go so far as to say that love = responsibility.

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A ceremony to remember – Brad and Emily

croffords_weddingOn November 4, 2016 – in Des Moines, Iowa – I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for my son, Brad, who married Emily (Em) Papp. What a day of joy that was for me, Amy, and all gathered! With Brad’s and Em’s blessing, I share below the wedding homily delivered that day.


“Be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving”

Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)

Emily and Brad,

Today is a day of great joy, a day that together you have anticipated for a long time. Life offers us many gifts. We are grateful that in God’s timing, you have received the gift of each other.

As a couple, you have done what many have tried but failed to do. Over several years, you have found creative ways to make a long-distance relationship flourish. Through 11 hour drives between Iowa and Oklahoma, through many “Skype dates” and too many text messages and phone calls to count, you’ve nurtured your love and watched it grow. That effort is praiseworthy. Look around you. On this your wedding day, we your family and friends strongly affirm our love and support for you. We who have walked the same road before you say with confidence that the person who finds a trustworthy companion for life has found a very good thing.

As wife and husband, you are beginning a new and rewarding chapter in your story. You will now enjoy companionship in close proximity and the many joys it brings. Yet most married couples can testify to the adjustment that newlyweds must make, moving from the all-too-familiar “I” to the less familiar “we”. Deuteronomy 24:5 speaks of the challenge of two becoming one:

“A newly married man doesn’t have to march in battle. Neither should any related duties be placed on him. He is to live free of such responsibilities for one year, so he can bring joy to his new wife.”

The Apostle Paul, though unmarried, provided simple advice that is useful to everyone but particularly for spouses early in their marriage. In Ephesians 4:32 (NLT) he writes: “…Be kind to each other, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”

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Apple pies, clay jars, and fresh starts

Pottery wheel in Rhodes, Greece 2010
By Wknight94 talk (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
My wife says I make the best apple pies. I don’t know if that’s true. Our now grown sons didn’t seem to mind helping devour them (with some melting vanilla ice cream on top) on those rare occasions when I ventured into the kitchen and the aroma of a fresh baked pie soon filled the house. When it comes to baking apple pie, it’s really not preparing the apples that discourages me; that’s the simple part. And it’s a cinch to mix in the sugar and cinnamon. The part that’s tough, the part that keeps me from making apple pie more often, is the crust.

Crust either makes your pie, or breaks it. Where I usually get into trouble is not when adding the butter, or the small amounts of water. That’s easy; what’s tough is using the rolling pin. You have to roll it out to just the right thickness, just the right size to fit in the bottom of the pie plate. And the real trick is making sure you put enough flour on the rolling pin. Otherwise, the dough will stick to it. A time or two, when I was trying to roll out the dough to just the right thickness, it became so hopelessly stuck to the pin, that I had no choice. I gathered up the dough, shaped it back into a round dough ball, and started all over again. The second time around, I had enough flour. The dough cooperated this time, and I ended up with a nice, thin, tasty crust. What was the secret? I had to be willing to start over.

Lessons from Jeremiah 18:1-4

They didn’t have pie crust back in the prophet Jeremiah’s time, but God was about to teach Jeremiah a similar lesson. Sometimes, you just have to start over. In chapter 18, the Lord tells the prophet to go down to the potter’s house. In some ways, I think Jeremiah must have been relieved. At least God wasn’t asking him to do what he asked the prophet Isaiah to do once as a sign to Israel, to parade around stripped and naked! This assignment seems pretty simple. Jeremiah is to watch the potter as he works the clay on the wheel, making a pot.

I wish I could show you what the wheel looks like. I found a drawing in one of my books. Imagine a large stone wheel on bottom, then connected by an axle to a smaller stone wheel on top. The potter sits at the wheel, with the clay resting on the top, smaller wheel. Then, with his feet, he turns the bottom wheel, which makes the top wheel spin. And of course, that makes the clay spin, allowing the potter to form it with his hands.

So there sits Jeremiah, watching this craftsman working. And the more he watches, the more enthralled he becomes. Jeremiah was probably never a priest himself, but he came from a long line of priests. So while he might have seen a lot of sacrificing of animals by members of his family, it’s doubtful he knew much about pottery. And as he sits and watches the pot take shape, suddenly, something goes wrong. Look at verses 3 and 4 of Jeremiah 18: “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him” (NIV). Here’s how the New Living Translation reads: “But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so the potter squashed the jar into a lump of clay and started again.”

There are lots of lessons that Jeremiah 18 has for us. Let’s take a few minutes and look at three of those lessons:

  1. God believes in second chances.
  2. New beginnings are usually painful.
  3. God wants to mold us into the image of Christ.

God believes in second chances.

Let’s take a look at that first lesson. God believes in second chances. There’s a word for that; it’s called grace. Theologians define grace as “the unmerited favor of God.” That means we don’t deserve it. In fact, because of our sin, our disobedience to God’s good law, the only thing we deserve is punishment.

Punishment is certainly what Israel, God’s chosen people, more than deserved. God had warned them long ago, when they were just starting out as a nation, that obedience would bring God’s blessing, but disobedience would result in divine curses. Deuteronomy 27-28 talks about those blessings and curses. Listen to the words of Deut. 28:1-6 (NIV):

If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all hiscommands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all nations on earth. All these blessings will accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock – the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flock. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in, and blessed when you go out.

But something had gone terribly wrong. Jeremiah 18:3 says that the clay pot was marred in the hands of the potter. God’s people, using their own God-given free will, had chosen poorly. They forgot that the same God who has promised blessings for obedience in Deut. 28 had warned of curses for disobedience just one chapter earlier. Deut. 27:15 says: “Cursed is the man who carves or casts an idol – a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands – and sets it up in secret.” Yet we now that, with the exception of King Josiah, who had tried to turn the people to the worship of the one true God, most of the recent kings of Judah had set-up public worship to other gods. The true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had become just one more god worshipped alongside others.

But there’s the potter, working away on his wheel. The jar he was making didn’t turn out as he had hoped. Jeremiah doesn’t go into too much detail, he just says it was “marred.” In any case, there was no way in its present condition that it would be a useful jar. No one would pay good money for it at the marketplace. The potter could have said: “Forget it. This clay is no good.” He could have thrown it aside, sent out his apprentice for some fresh clay. But he does something else. The potter squashes the clay, and starts all over again. The potter doesn’t give up. Brothers and sisters, hear the Word of the Lord this morning: God is a God of grace. God believes in second chances.

I don’t know what you’ve done; I don’t know what your sin is. I’m pretty sure, though, that Satan has told you time and again: “Forget it. God can’t forgive that. You’re over the line. You’re beyond help.” But Jesus tells it like it is. Satan is the Father of lies; don’t listen to him. Jesus stands with his arms outstretched, ready to forgive you, ready to say to you, like he said to the woman caught in adultery: “Woman, where are your accusers? Has none condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now, and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10-11, NIV). Jesus believed in second chances. And even if you need a third chance or a fourth or maybe even more, there is a place of beginning again. Just like the potter squashed the clay, and started over again, you can have a fresh start. You can’t change yourself, but God can change you. Are you willing to be changed?

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What does love DO?

LOVEDOESNote to the reader: I preached this sermon at the Upstate New York District Family Camp, on Sunday, July 3. Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible.

Text: Hebrews 13:1-16

Hebrews is an amazing book! It took a long time for the church to give it her stamp of approval, mainly because we’re not sure who wrote it. But one thing is certain: We sense in it the voice of the Lord.

Chapters 1-10 explain the high priestly ministry of Christ. We see how Jesus made atonement for our sins as God’s perfect sacrifice. Now chapters 11, 12, & 13 make some practical applications to life. In view of the great sacrifice for sin, the towering Cross of Christ, how shall we live?

Hebrews 13:1 sets the tone for the rest of the chapter:

Keep loving each other like family (CEB).

Love is one of the most overworked words in the English language. Still, it is the supporting beam that holds up the whole house of Christianity. Remove that beam, and the whole structure comes crashing down. Jesus in Mark 12 even summarized all the law and the prophets with two Great Commandments:

  1. Love God;
  2. Love others.

John Wesley with his brother, Charles, was the co-founder of the 18th century Methodist movement. If Phineas Bresee was our spiritual father, as Nazarenes, then Wesley was our spiritual grandfather. Here’s what he had to say about love:

How far is love…to be preferred before truth itself without love? We may die without the knowledge of many truths and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels.

A few years ago, Bob Goff wrote a book entitled Love Does. It’s not enough to give an abstract definition of love. We understand what love is when we look at at what love does. Hebrews 13 may be understood as a long answer to a simple question:

What does love DO?

And to that question, I see in vv. 1-16 at least 4 answers:

  1. Love welcomes.
  2. Love remembers the forgotten and the mistreated.
  3. Love lives simply.
  4. Love sacrifices.

LOVE WELCOMES

First, love welcomes. Let’s read v. 2 again: “Don’t neglect to open your home to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.”

When we first arrived in Kenya, one of the first words we learned in Swahili was the word for “welcome” – karibu, or (in the plural) karibuni.  It literally means “come close.” The writer to the Hebrews is saying: Love welcomes. He’s reminding us that the people of God are radically hospitable, that we are a “come close” people.

Verse 2 begins by saying that being a “come close” people includes being in each others’  homes. Back in 1986, Amy and I were in Kansas City while I attended seminary. Sunday night was an important service in the life of our church because we got to know each other more informally. Sue (not her real name) was one of our close friends. I remember when 30 minutes after the service people were still visiting and laughing. The janitor needed to lock up, so Sue announced lightheartedly: “Go home, people! You do have homes?” In fact, we did, and often after Sunday morning church, we invited others over for dinner, or they invited us. Sometimes it was Sunday evening, and we’d play a game or watch a movie together, in our homes.

Have we gotten out of the habit of home fellowship? Verse 2 reminds us: “Don’t neglect to open up your home to guests…” What will that look like as individuals, as churches, as a nation? What opportunities to reach people for Christ is God sending right to our doorstep, people from other countries, moving in right across the street?

I graduated from Eastern Nazarene College in 1985 but walked the neighborhood in Wollaston (Massachusetts) once again last Tuesday. Wollaston Church of the Nazarene does not need to send missionaries to China. God has already sent a bunch of Chinese to Wollaston! The “mission field” has come to us. They own restaurants, real estate agencies, and laundromats. They send their children to the public schools. I wonder: Are we saying to the Chinese in Wollaston or those of other nationalities “Karibuni” – come close – or are we saying “go away”? The first lesson from Hebrews 13 is: LOVE WELCOMES.

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An address to the graduates of NTC and NTCCA

Greg_grad_NTCI was honored to deliver this address to the graduates of Nazarene Theological College (South Africa) on April 23, 2016 and the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on May 7, 2016.

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WE ARE GATHERED TODAY in this place for a celebration. During these moments together, we pause to thank the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – for his grace upon the lives of these graduates. In one way, today marks an ending, the finish line for a race that these women and men have been running, some for as long as the past 3 years. Graduates, as you cross that finish line this morning, I add my voice to the chorus of voices and say: “Congratulations! Well-done.”

Yet if today is an ending, in another more important way, it is also a beginning, or – to use the traditional word for a graduation ceremony – a commencement. It is the start of the rest of your life as those who seek to be ordained ministers, leading the flock of God in one capacity or another. At such a high and holy moment, what would our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, be pleased for us to consider?

Because this is a graduation address and not a sermon, I will not take a single biblical text and expound it. That is an essential skill for a preacher and one that your teachers have taught you well. But like a preacher often does, allow me to give you a Trinity of ideas, 3 words of advice as you either launch out in ministry or else continue in that path:

1) Defend the flock fiercely;

2) Hold your position lightly;

3) Cling to Jesus tightly. Continue reading

Work with the end in mind

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“WORK WITH THE END IN MIND”

Rev. 2:18-29

I.  INTRODUCTION

Eric, a first year college student, moved into the dormitory. Once he had arranged his things inside his room, he cut a large golden letter “V” out of paper and posted it on his door. Others often would ask what the “V” meant, but Eric never would say. When his friends went out to party, he instead spent long hours in the library. He made friends for sure, but he kept his priorities straight. The four years passed quickly, and graduation day came. The Vice Chancellor of the school introduced him as the valedictorian. Eric came to the podium, then opened up his folder. Carefully, he took out what was inside. With a huge smile on his face, he held it up a large golden “V” as his classmates burst into applause.

Eric is a good example of what Steven Covey, the leadership guru, identified as one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here it is: WORK WITH THE END IN MIND. And that’s exactly how our passage today is structured. Revelation 2:26-29 is a description of the golden letter “V,” a picture of the conqueror, the overcomer, the victor. God desires a wonderful outcome for each of us and in Jesus’ words to the church in Thyatira we find solid advice on how best to work with the end (or the goal) in mind. Allow me to paraphrase that advice as follows:

  1. Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.
  2. Avoid pitfalls.
  3. Persevere!

II. CELEBRATE AND KEEP DOING WHAT IS WORKING WELL

In Rev. 2:18, the Son of God, Christ himself – whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet like burnished bronze – congratulates the church in Thyatira.

That’s a lesson in and of itself. It seems like if you steal something or shoot somebody, you get mentioned in the news. How often, though, do we as a church celebrate the achievements of our own people? Maybe one of our children won a dance contest. Celebrate it! Or perhaps one of our brothers got a promotion at work. Can we celebrate that? There are dozens of good things, wholesome achievements that fly under the radar. Maybe we don’t know about them, or maybe we do, but do we praise God for what he is allowing us to achieve both as a church and as individuals in the church?

Jesus says in verse 19: “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” Those are high words of praise! Who at the end of their life when the believers gather for the funeral would not want that kind of praise?

“Sister so-and-so was loving and faithful.”

“Brother so-and-so served us well and didn’t quit.”

In the same way, take inventory of your life. What are you doing well? Are you a good provider, showing up at work on-time and giving your best to your employer? Then you need to tell your spouse: “Good job! Keep up the good work.” Maybe your children used to leave their toys lying around the house, to the point where they were a hazard. But now, they’re doing better. Or maybe last term they had a “D” on their report card but this time they raised it to be “B.” That’s worth celebrating. Perhaps someone at school said a very hurtful thing to your daughter, but instead of getting bitter, she prayed and God helped her forgive them. Parents, take a minute to celebrate your daughter’s forgiving heart. It will serve them well throughout life.

It’s important to identify what we’re doing well. Several times, I’ve taught a course on preaching. One student would preach and the others would have a handout where they could write comments. After the sermon, no matter how poor, we would always before suggesting improvements take time to affirm the things the preacher had done right. Perhaps they had lots of zeal when preaching. We affirmed that. Or maybe the volume was plenty high so that everyone could clearly hear what was being said. We affirmed that, too. It was important that we sincerely praised what was worthy of praise.

God looks at you, my brother, my sister, and God sees lots to praise. You are making spiritual progress! Celebrate that in yourself and celebrate that in others.

Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.

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