What began almost four years ago will officially conclude at the end of this month as I celebrate “commencement” with my colleagues. For me, this is not as ceremonious as, say, graduating from high school. It’s about as ceremonious as rotating off the church board.
Most of my classmates are in that contemplative, reminiscing state of mind about leaving school. But for a couple of reasons, I’m having a hard time joining them.
The first is because much of my life will stay the same after graduation. I’m not staring at a complete unknown or a summer of uncertainty because I have never been only about seminary. Seminary was but one part of my life, along with work and wife and daughter and God and hobbies. Seminary for me was something that squeezed itself in and will soon be expelled, and because of that I am excited.
The second reason is because of my own seminary experience. If my life is a party, seminary was not the guest of honor. Seminary was the bad party guest.
Before beginning my degree I was counseled that seminary can be either an expansive experience, or a myopic one. For me it was both. It was expansive in that I certainly learned much and was exposed to new ideas. But the myopia has overshadowed this. For an institution that prides itself on relevance and diversity and progress, I found it frustratingly narrow-minded. There was very little room at Austin Seminary for a quiet, introspective evangelical like me.
I never was able to let my guard down because if, for example, I asked an honest question about Scripture, I’d get whacked over the head by a classmate or professor because I held too high a view of Scripture. If I talked about angels and demons, I’d get whacked for buying into a Greek understanding of the cosmos. And so on. Folks at seminary like to carry their special hammers, and rather than just whacking at nails they tend to whack at everything. (Sadly, this seems to be the culture of many seminaries.)
While I am critical of the seminary for this overbearing blind spot, I am still grateful for having attended. I am in a different and I would suggest stronger place that I would have been if I had gone to an institution with which I aligned theologically. But I am certainly excited to conclude my time here and find a place where I actually do fit in.
NBA player Jason Collins’ recent coming out was a monumental event for the LGBT community. Part of the victory could be seen on mainstream sports websites such as espn.com and mlb.com, where the overwhelming press was positive in nature. It was no small thing to have high-profile athletes like Kobe Bryant, whom we tend to idolize, come out themselves in support of Jason Collins.
Yet with every high-profile event in the homosexual debate, we witness a dust up of sorts. A fall out. A ruffling of feathers. And it always seems to revolve around a conservative Christian voicing her or his opinion on homosexuality.
The casualty this round was Chris Broussard. ESPN put him on camera to talk about Jason Collins and gay athletes in the NBA. He articulated the classical Christian understanding regarding same-sex behavior, and he is now the token bigot whose views on the matter are irrelevant. Inexplicably, ESPN felt it necessary to apologize for Broussard’s comments, saying they “value diversity” — as long as you Christians keep your mouths shut.
If you say the words “homosexuality is a sin” in a public arena you will get flack. People will slap a label on you. You are essentially done. In their minds, you are the KKK and they don’t have to put up with you.
Given the seismic shift we are witnessing, the time has come for Christians to make an adjustment.
Don’t say “homosexuality is a sin” in the public arena anymore. It is a loaded yet nebulous statement, for it fails to distinguish between the myriad issues which include same-sex feelings, same-sex behavior, and gay marriage. It has also become a tactless statement in our culture. Guns are pointed at you and people are wondering if they have to fire them. Don’t give them that edge.
Instead, consider two alternatives. One is to refrain from commenting. Just because you can comment doesn’t mean that you should. And by not commenting, you might think that you are thus affirming the issue. Not necessarily. Sometimes the wise thing to do when you are in a position of weakness is to save your battles for another time.
A second suggestion is to comment in a new way. Maybe, if asked to comment on gay athletes in the NBA, Chris Broussard could have said, “This is a monumental day for the LGBT community. I don’t agree with same-sex behavior but there’s no denying that this is a significant point in time for those who do endorse it.” And if this doesn’t work, try something else.
Don’t change what you believe. Have good reasons for believing it, but recontextualize it for a culture that can’t seem to handle it.
After a number of months in the book of Genesis, we move to a study on the book of Ephesians. For the next several weeks we will be examining this precious New Testament letter, written by the Apostle Paul to a church he knew and loved, in the coastal city of Ephesus.
Ephesus was situated in what is known today as the country of Turkey, along the coastline of the Aegean Sea. The third-largest city in the Roman Empire at the time, it would have been a major city of commerce, and education, and culture, and economic success. In many ways, it had much in common with Austin, TX.
From what we understand, Paul spent two years in Ephesus. We read about his time in this great city in Acts 19 and 20, and I would encourage you to examine those stories sometime. There you will read about God’s extraordinary miracles in Ephesus through the apostle Paul. Even the handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched his skin had a special healing power (Acts 19.12). The word of God increased and prevailed mightily in Ephesus, so that all the residents in the region heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19.10).
Some time later, perhaps while Paul is in Rome, he begins to craft a letter to these believers in Ephesus. Our hope, here at Covenant, as we read what Paul said to the Ephesians so many years ago, is for us to begin to dream again. In the coming weeks you will see and hear us talk about dreaming together as a church about where we will go and what we will be.
That dream begins with God. That’s our text today. So before we read, let us pray.
Everlasting God, you have preserved your word for us, and we are grateful. Blessed are you, the one who blesses us. We ask for ears to hear and eyes to see your magnificence in these words. In Christ we ask, Amen.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
May God bless the reading of his holy word.
There’s an overwhelming depth to what we just read. The apostle Paul has a way with words, does he not? In the very beginning of his letter, he launches into some of the deepest theological concepts in Scripture. The sentence structure is complex. With all the commas and prepositional phrases, it’s difficult to navigate.
So we will move slowly.
The overarching theme of this text is verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Blessed be God.
The word in the original language for the word blessing is “eulogia,” from which you might recognize the word “eulogy.” What’s a eulogy? It is literally a “Good Word.” Something said that is positive in nature. In our day and age, a eulogy is said the a time of someone’s death. A friend, a family member, a pastor, really anyone can stand before the assembly at a funeral and offer a GOOD WORD, a blessing, a EULOGIA about the one who has died. A blessing on the deceased and on those mourning.
Divine blessing is usually understood as God doing something wonderful for us. God showering us with an abundance of something. Whether it be health or a new baby or a job or a promotion. When Christians say “God has blessed me,” we’re saying that God’s favor has fallen upon me.
But here, Paul is blessing God. Blessed are you, O God. The psalmist shouts, “I will bless the Lord at all times!” (Psalm 34.1). The good words that we offer, the praise, the love and adoration, land on God’s ears as blessing.
The question then is, Why? Why is Paul here blessing God? That’s what the rest of this text is about.
In verse 3 Paul alludes to “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Today, we will consider three of these spiritual blessings. Three gifts. Three reasons why God — who blesses — is himself to be blessed.
God is often called “The One who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come.” Past, present, and future. In like manner, God is the one who blessed, God is the one who blesses, and God is the one who will bless.
That is the nature of the three gifts we will examine.
The first gift, the gift that came before the foundation of the world, is predestination.
You no doubt heard and saw the words “predestined” as we moved through the reading. Some translations say “Destined,” others say “God’s choice,” “decided”. They are all getting at the same point.
Ask ten Presbyterians what Presbyterians believe about predestination and they may say, “I think we believe something about predestination.”
Ask ten Presbyterians, “What do you believe about predestination?” and all bets are off.
But as with any doctrine, we must look at what Scripture teaches rather than what we like or dislike.
Paul explicitly mentions predestination in three verses. And every time he makes mention of it, it is good.
It is imperative that we never divorce this concept from Christ. Verse 4: “…even as he chose us IN HIM before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
IN HIM, that is, IN CHRIST, he chose us before the foundation of the world. It’s about us, yes, but it’s about Christ. Christ was no afterthought. Christ was God’s purpose all along. With trembling, Paul rejoices that in Christ, God chose us.
And why? Why did God predestine us? For blessing. That we should be holy and blameless, that we should be adopted. He chose us in love. He chose us according to his good purposes.
I am aware of the questions that this raises. I have wrestled through those same questions myself. So in our brief time today, my hope and my encouragement to you is to see this doctrine for what it truly is, for what Scripture tells us it is: a blessing.
The second gift is one that God blesses us with. Predestination was a blessing in the past. Now we move to a present blessing: redemption.
You see it brought up in verse 7. In him, that is Christ, we have redemption.
The people of Ephesus were largely a people who were committed to the Greek goddess Artemis. When Paul was in Ephesus proclaiming one God in Jesus Christ, the people in Ephesus rioted. They were unhappy with Paul for teaching that there is one true God.
But Artemis didn’t redeem the people. For us as well, every false god that we have today fails to redeem us.
Redemption is the act of God buying back what was lost from him. A release from bondage to those who are bound. This implies that we were first separated from God. In sin, that’s where every human being is. We have been cut off from God because of our sin, because of the many ways that we disobey God’s good and holy standards. But God did not stop at that. He not only forgave sin, but he put forth a payment to buy us back.
The payment was Jesus Christ. Through the blood of Jesus, God looks upon our sin and washes it away, and brings us back to himself.
There was once a judge who had a close friend who was accused of a terrible crime. The friend was to be put on trial, and everyone in town was particularly interested because of what they saw as a potential conflict of interest.
The day of the trial came. The friend stood in the court while the prosecution and defense were made. There was no contest. After examining the evidence, it was abundantly clear the man was guilty.
The court room buzzed with anticipation before the judge gave his verdict. Was this judge going to pardon his friend out of special treatment, or was he going to send this friend to prison?
The guilty man stood before the judge. “My friend,” the judge said, “We have examined the evidence. You are guilty of this heinous crime. As a result of your actions, I have brought about the harshest penalty that I could against you.”
Then the judge did something unexpected. He stood up. He took off his robe. He walked down from his chair and up to his friend. He hugged him. He said, “My friend, I love you. I have sold everything that I own, and taken all the money that I have, and I have paid the ransom for your freedom. The debt has been paid in your name, and you are now a free man.”
The debt that this man owed was not simply cancelled, but it was paid in full by another man. That’s what Jesus did. Every one of us has sinned and is therefore guilty before God. But Jesus Christ, the God-Man, took on human flesh and paid the debt in full by his death so that we might not only be forgiven, but redeemed!
This is what Easter is all about. This is what we remember every year during Holy Week and on Easter Sunday, that because of the actions in history of a man known as Jesus of Nazareth, God has opened the gates of heaven for human beings to be redeemed.
You may be asking yourself, How can I get that? How can I be redeemed? Ask him for it. Say to God, I owe you a debt that I cannot repay. But you have offered a payment in Jesus Christ. Please, God, redeem me because of Jesus Christ.
That is the immeasurable depth of God’s grace.
But it doesn’t stop there. There is more blessing from God. More that he has lavished upon us because of the riches of his grace. And it’s a gift that is yet to come.
The third gift is inheritance.
Paul makes mention of inheritance in verse 11. Here he is talking, not of a literal, physical inheritance in the form of finances or an estate. He is talking about something much more valuable. A spiritual inheritance. A spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
It is difficult sometimes to believe in this future blessing, for the simple reason that we cannot grasp it. We cannot physically see it. But there is a way that we can be certain of our future inheritance.
It is an inheritance that is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. Because of the Holy Spirit, we hope in this blessing.
The church in Ephesus knew what Paul was talking about.
In Acts 19 again, and you don’t have to look this up, Paul comes to Ephesus at the beginning of his ministry there. He found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” They said “No, we have no idea what you are talking about.” He says, “What about your baptism? Did you not receive the Holy Spirit at your baptism?” They answered that they had been baptized into John’s baptism. But the Holy Spirit did not come upon them. And so Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ, at which point the Holy Spirit came on them, Acts 19.6.
The Holy Spirit in that moment, in our baptism, puts a seal on the lives of believers. Like a librarian puts a seal on the inside of a book which says, this is our book, the Holy Spirit sealed us in Christ. And we can know that because of this seal, because of this guarantee, our inheritance will not perish (cf. 1 Peter 1.3-4).
This is the future gift that is waiting for everyone who is in Christ Jesus. It is fellowship with God. It is fellowship with Christ. It is a new body. It is eternal salvation with the blessed one. And there is no risk of this blessing being lost or corrupted. This inheritance is there for all of time.
So, Covenant. Dream! Because of God, dream!
Dream about what God has done. Dream about what God is doing. And dream about what God will do.
The riches of God’s grace are deeper than the greatest depths, and higher than the greatest heights. Blessed is God, the One who was, the One who is, and the One who is to come.
We continue in our study in the Gospel according to Matthew. The first book of the New Testament. If you have not been with us in recent weeks, we have been in a discussion on a portion of the story that emphasizes mission. Chapters 9 and 10 focus on Christ sending his disciples out into all the cities and villages of Galilee, to teach in synagogues and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom (9.35). He even gives them power to heal the sick and raise people from the dead.
It is a fairly lengthy discourse by our Lord that some have even called a sermon by Jesus, a sermon on mission.[i]
Prior to sending his disciples out, he equips them. He gives them instructions, encouragement, commands, warnings, promises, even a slice of mystery. Last week we began to look at verses 26-33, a section where Jesus tells his disciples not to fear. There was no church at this time, they were just following the man Jesus whom they did not yet fully understand, and he’s saying to them, Now you go do what I have been doing. No doubt they were all feeling a bit fearful at Jesus’ propositions. But he says to them repeatedly, Don’t be fearful. Fear not.
“Fear not” seems more like a bumper-sticker slogan than an actual kingdom-spreading principle. But to give them some peace he tells them WHY they should not fear. Something that they can hang onto as assurance that they need not fear.
That is the reading for today, verse 29. Hear the word of the Lord:
Matthew 10.29: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
May God bless the reading of his holy Word.
Throughout my childhood I had pets that were fairly basic. I had a fish tank, a couple of dogs, even a little gerbil for a time. But that was pretty much it. When I began dating my wife I was stretched because I quickly learned that her family had lots of pets. Iguanas, guinea pigs, dogs, cats, fish, frogs, hamsters, turtles. Sure enough, after we were married, it wasn’t long before we learned about two small kittens who needed a home, and suddenly I had made the rather serious conversion from a dog person to a cat person.
Birds, though? Honestly, I never considered getting a bird. I liked my dog just fine. I would rather have a pet rock than a pet bird.
Birds never seemed important to me.
But they are important to Jesus, and to our God.
They are so important, in fact, that they deserve more than a passing glance in our study of Matthew. So we will take a step back from the story in Matthew this week and focus on something quite noticeable. In this middle of this discourse we find a rather startling revelation about God’s relation to animals.
Jesus says, “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny in the marketplace?”
This is a rhetorical question, so we can safely assume that, yes, two sparrows were sold in that time for a penny, or the Roman equivalent to a penny. They cost nothing more than some loose change.
In Luke’s account it reads slightly different. Jesus says in Luke, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” (Lk 12.6). So two for one, or five for two. That was the deal on sparrows. We might think of this as a baker’s dozen. These little sparrows were so inexpensive that vendors would throw in an extra one for free.
The point being made here is that these sparrows or birds were relatively valueless to the people. One can hardly buy anything for a penny anymore. In fact, people often walk by a penny when they see it on the ground. They don’t think it’s worth their while to even bend down and pick it up for later usage.
These sparrows held less monetary value than the least valuable coin in Jesus’ day.
And what is the point Jesus is making? That God cares about every single one of them.
The wording is intriguing. “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Some translations, trying to add a little more clarity, will say “apart from your Father’s care” or “apart from your Father knowing it.” The implication though is clear: these tiny birds, that were exchanged for less a penny or less, matter to God. God cares for them. God loves them.
Every chirp, every hop, every flap of the wing, and ultimately every death of even the smallest bird matters to God.
Sadly, animals fall to the ground all the time. Sometimes a particular species of animals falls to the ground permanently. We call this extinction. Extinction occurs when there are no longer any living members of a particular group or species.
Growing up, I often thought about extinction strictly in relation to dinosaurs and dodo birds. Extinction was something that happened only long ago, I thought. That gave the idea of extinction a rather distant feeling for me and probably for most of us.
But unfortunately it is much more common. A journal article I recently read estimated that at the beginning of the 1990s, some 27,000 species become extinct every year. Many experts in the field now consider this to be a conservative number.[ii]
To bring it a little closer to home, the butterfly population is under threat in Britain. In 2001, a report found that of the 59 butterfly species in that country, 15 had become extinct.[iii]
Many species of animals are being pushed to extinction before scientists are even able to identify them and show the world their amazing intrinsic value. Many of these animals may even be potential health source for humans, but they are disappearing before we can find out. The reason that extinction has increased in our day is primarily because of the actions of human beings and the repurposing of the habitats and homes of so many creatures.[iv]
Extinction is not treated formally in the scriptures. Yet appreciation for life, gratitude to God for life, and a strong belief that God cares for life are central features of both Old and New Testaments.
Scripture tells over and over again of the value that God places on all living creatures. Psalm 104, which we read earlier in our service, proclaims that innumerable creatures are filled with good things from God. In Psalm 50 God says that all cattle and birds belong to God (50.10-11).
One of the most significant passages is the covenant that God makes in Genesis 9. It is not only a covenant between God and Noah, but between God and all flesh. God says to Noah, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood… When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again destroy all flesh.” (Gen 9.8ff).
It is no surprise to hear of God’s love expanding ever deeper, ever farther than many of us may have ever contemplated. God does not have just warm feelings about the animals that roam the earth. This text reveals that God has covenant-keeping love for all creatures. Every sparrow, reptile, fish, invertebrate, and vertebrate.
So I would like to offer some pastoral reflections on God’s love for all creatures and how we humans should think and live going forward.
1. Fear not. In all of this, remember that Jesus is teaching his disciples not to fear. Don’t fear, because God is with you. God is with you in the same way that God is with every single little bird that is traded for pennies. But they are not worth pennies. They are worth far more because God values them. So do not fear, he says.
We might be fearful at of the prospect of losing so many species to extinction. It is right and appropriate to be concerned about this. There are things we can do, steps we can take, to minimize the negative effects we have on other creatures. And ultimately, our hope is in God. In the providential hand of God. The one who transcends our broken earthly struggles, who is able to bring life out of death, to bring light out of darkness, and redeem a lost and perishing world.
2. We are given dominion over animals, but we do not have license to mistreat them. Because all animals belong to God (Ps 50.10), they all have great intrinsic worth. People are to care for animals and, when using them, treat them with the utmost dignity.
3. Lament the deaths of animals. The divine government is not so taken up with international problems and the affairs of human beings that it has no time for birds or other seemingly insignificant creatures. As God laments the death of God’s people (Ps 116.15), what Jesus teaches us here is that God is also moved when even the tiniest little creature dies.
I am in Texas, and I am a lifelong Texan, so I know that I am speaking to ranchers and farmers and people who interact with animals on a daily basis. We depend on animals for our livelihood. I have cousins and uncles who are in the cattle business. So what I say to you, I say as though I were addressing my own kin. I am not suggesting that you must walk away from what God has called you to do in your professional life. My call for you today is to care for all creatures whom God has entrusted to you. The death of one of God’s creatures, even the smallest mosquito, does not happen apart from the omniscient and sovereign hand of God.
4. And finally, see the glory of God in all creatures.
In my backyard my family and I often see sparrows and other birds. One type of sparrow that we see has a black neck, a dark beak, brown and black wings with a sandy-gray chest. Streaks of white course across their cheeks and wings. They call out to one another with a rhythmic song that, if you pay close attention, you can hear them repeat the pattern of chips and trills and buzzes with uncanny precision.
The blue jay is one of our favorites. There is something about their bright blue color that catches your eye every time they appear. It’s the contrast, I think, that makes them so riveting. Sparrows can blend in with their surroundings, but blue jays oftentimes aren’t as good at camouflage. There’s one blue jay that never fails to show up when I’m mowing the grass. She loves a newly cut lawn because she can get to the dirt easier.
And the cardinals. They have just the brightest beaks. It’s a vibrant, bright orange, almost fluorescent looking. And the dark black around their eyes is stunning. Not to mention the bold red – almost solid red – feathers that cover their bodies.
Glory be to God for the birds of the air. For the fish of the sea. For all living creatures whose presence in our midst reveals the glory of our Creator. The whole earth declares the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims God’s handiwork. Thanks be to God.
I had never heard of Jason Collins before yesterday. Probably many of you had not either.
News broke yesterday afternoon that this NBA player has announced he’s gay, and in so doing he is the first openly gay male athlete in one of America’s main sports. Jason Collins is this generation’s Jackie Robinson — even though gay is not the new black.
This was inevitable. Someone was going to come out soon. The tide has turned, and cultural support for gay marriage and homosexual behavior will not be stopped.
Christians would be wise to make an adjustment, if you haven’t done so already.
I am not saying that we should abandon the biblical understanding of marriage and homosexuality. Far from it. What I am saying is that Christians ought to stop being shocked and upset by news like this. We must, as Mark Yarhouse says, move beyond a culture-war framework.
The Christ-like response to any person who comes out as gay is not to applaud, celebrate, or rejoice in the things that Christ teaches are harmful to ourselves and to our relationship with God. The Christ-like response is not to say derogatory, bigoted, or insensitive comments about someone who is embracing same-sex behavior. The Christ-like response is to be willing to die for them. To pursue them with relentless patience. To listen to their story. To affirm their identity as a child of God. To encourage them in wholeness and healing.
They of course have to be willing to listen to what we have to say. But that is becoming quite rare.
The vacuous catchphrase “Who are you to say” has lassoed our culture around the neck and will not let go until all life has been strangled out of it.
Even then, I’m not so sure.
The phrase is often uttered amid a conflict of opinions. One person, usually out of options, will retort, “Well, who are you to say that polygamy is wrong?” (To pick a random example.)
I recently heard a friend say it about himself. He and his wife are considering selling their home. She wants to keep it and rent it, he does not. But he caved. He told me, “Who am I to say that she should have to sell the house when she doesn’t want to?”
Dude, you’re her husband!
This is postmodernism on full display. What’s being said is that a person no longer has the right to say something to another person that conflicts with his opinion. What you do is your business, and what I do is my business, so let’s just stay out of each other’s business.
Pretty soon, all you will have to do to be a leader is be willing to say something.
I had a great time today at Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership event here in Austin at Riverbend Church. I’ve listened to him for so long that I found myself completing several of his sentences in my head. But he is still the authority on small business, leadership, and money, and I always come back for more.