Worth repeating

A story is told of three sons who grew up, left home, and went out into the world to make their fortunes. They each became wealthy. One day they got together and talked about the gifts they were able to buy for their elderly mother. The first son said, “I built a big house for Mom.” The second said, “I sent her a new Mercedes with a driver.”  The third son smiled and said, “I’ve got you both beat. You know how Mom loves the Bible, but you also know she can’t see very well. I sent her a brown parrot that can recite the entire Bible. It took 20 monks in a monastery ten years to teach him. I had to pledge $100,000 a year for 10 years, but all Mom has to do is name the chapter and verse and the parrot will recite it.”

Soon after, the mother sent thank you notes to her sons. 

To the first son she wrote, “Thank you so much for the house, but I only live in one room, yet I have to clean the whole house.”

To the second son she wrote, “Thank you so much for the new Mercedes. It is beautiful, but I’m too old to travel much now so I stay home. By the way, the driver is rude.”

To the third son she wrote, “My dearest son. You are the only one with the good sense to know what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious!”

There are some passages in the Bible that have received the kind of tragic misunderstanding that’s captured by this story. John 3:1-15, which describes Jesus’ encounter with a religious leader named Nicodemus, is one of those.

Famously, Jesus told Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Nicodemus couldn’t see what Jesus was talking about.

And it’s not that much different in our culture today. “Born again Christians” are considered a subset of all Christians, an unhappy, morally rigid subset at that.

But the truth is, “born again Christian” is a tautology. It’s saying the same thing twice in a row. As Jesus told Nicodemus, no one can be a Christian outside of a spiritual rebirth from heaven.

Actual Christians are, by definition, “born again.”

That’s worth repeating.

Queen’s gambit

I just watched The Queen’s Gambit, the popular Netflix miniseries based on the 1983 book by Walter Tevis. It’s about a girl named Beth who’s taken to live in an orphanage after her mother died in a car accident. In the orphanage, Beth is befriended by the janitor who teaches her to play chess. It soon becomes apparent that Beth is a prodigy, but could she master the obstacles in her life so she could master the game?

A “gambit” is a strategy, ruse, or ploy.

A “Queen’s Gambit” is an opening strategy in chess that puts the player on the offensive. It also described Beth’s approach to life: Don’t let others know what you’re thinking. Keep your opponents on the defensive.

That may be fine for chess, but it’s not how God designed us.

What if you had a friend who you could trust with your deepest secrets? We have such a friend in Jesus Christ. John 2:25 says that, “He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.”

In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth’s genius wasn’t enough to master the game. It wasn’t until she let her friends help her that she was able to succeed at the highest level.

There’s no gambit that we can use on Jesus. Nothing gets by him. He knows everything about us and still he loves us completely. 

None of us ever really “master the game” of life.

But we can trust the Master.

Turning water into…grape juice?

My late father-in-law was a wonderful man of faith. He was a humble servant, the most Christ-like person I ever knew. Part of his walk with the Lord meant not drinking alcohol.

There are lots of reasons not to drink. Alcohol abuse claims 100,000 lives in the US every year. The scope of personal tragedy is unthinkable. The CDC estimates the economic toll at a quarter trillion dollars.

But that’s not why Lonnie didn’t drink. Like a lot of people born during Prohibition, he’d been taught that drinking was a deadly sin.

So, I asked him, how could it be that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine? It was because he came from a faith tradition which taught that it wasn’t wine that Jesus made, but grape juice. 

Well, no. In Isaiah 25:6, the prophet pointed to a future where “the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine.” Jesus turned water to wine, showing he had come to fulfill God’s promise.

The Apostle Paul advised Timothy to drink wine for his health. Wine was probably safer than the water back then.

In Luke 18, Jesus told a parable of two men who went to the temple to pray. One, a religious insider, reminded God that he was better than other people, like tax collectors, and that he fasted twice a week. The other, a tax collector, just beat his breast and pleaded for mercy.

Here’s the thing. Just as God doesn’t require us to “fast twice a week,” he doesn’t give us extra credit for not drinking. God gave us wine to be enjoyed, a sign of his abundant provision for us. 

Now, my father-in-law lived a joyous life; he never missed out on a thing.

But drinking is not a deadly sin.

It’s sin that often makes drinking deadly.

It’s also sin that leads us to make rules God never intended.

What do you want…really?

A few years ago, I started work on a proposal for a sabbatical grant from the Lilly Endowment. It was quite an effort, taking a team of us more than a year to complete. The key question Lilly wanted to know was, “What makes your heart sing?”

Could you answer that?

Do you really know what makes your heart sing?

Are you sure?

In his wonderful book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Christian philosophy professor James K.A. Smith says that we are all pursuing a vision of the good life. But most of that vision has been formed in us without our knowing. We’re bombarded every day, all day, by visions of the good life set forth in the culture through marketing, social media, etc. We’ve been conditioned to think, “If I have that…look like that…get that degree…had a partner like him or her,” then I’ll have achieved the good life. 

But it never works that way. The moment we achieve “that,” “that” starts to get old.

Smith says to really understand what makes your heart sing, to reach your vision of the good life, you have to retrain your heart. It takes time, practice, repetition, to unlearn what the culture tells us and discover a greater vision.

We were created in and for love by a God of love. What we all really want, whether we know it or not, is to love God and to reflect God’s love to the world.

According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus recruited the first disciples, he didn’t ask them what they believed. He didn’t even say, “Follow me.” He simply asked, “What do you want?”

Of course, they didn’t know.

So he spent three years showing them what truly made their hearts sing.

Pass the rope

When Arland Williams buckled into his seat on that snowy night on in Washington, DC, he had no idea that the defining moment of his life was just moments away. Surely, he was anxious to get back home. Perhaps he was becoming impatient, along with the other passengers and crew, over still another delay, even after their Boeing 737 had to be deiced a second time.   

Seconds after takeoff, Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the icy waters of the Potomac. Arland was one of only six to escape the crash. A Park Police helicopter was the first on the scene, lowering a rope to the survivors clinging to the wreckage. Arland kept passing the rope to the others, so the helicopter could lift them one-by-one to the shore. But when the helicopter returned the sixth time, he was gone, dragged beneath the waves by the sinking wreckage.

Arland was a graduate of The Citadel, and President Ronald Reagan spoke about him in his commencement address at The Citadel in 1993.

Reagan said, “Sometimes, you see, life gives us what we think is fair warning of the choices that will shape our future. On such occasions, we are able to look far along the path, up ahead to that distant point in the woods where the poet’s “two roads” diverge. And then, if we are wise, we will take time to think and reflect before choosing which road to take before the junction is reached.

“But far more often than we can comfortably admit, the most crucial of life’s moments come like the scriptural “thief in the night.” Suddenly and without notice, the crisis is up on us and the moment of choice is at hand—a moment fraught with import for ourselves, and for all who are depending on the choice we make. We find ourselves, if you will, plunged without warning into the icy water, where the currents of moral consequence run swift and deep, and where our fellow man – and yes, I believe our Maker—are waiting to see whether we will pass the rope.

“These are moments when instinct and character take command, as they took command for Arland Williams on the day our Lord would call him home. For there is no time, at such moments, for anything but fortitude and integrity. Debate and reflection and a leisurely weighing of the alternatives are luxuries we do not have. The only question is what kind of responsibility will come to the fore.

“And now we come to the heart of the matter, to the core lesson taught by the heroism of Arland Williams on January 13, 1982. For you see, the character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined.

“It has been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the little choices of years past—by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation—whispering the lie that it really doesn’t matter. It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away—the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness, habits of self-sacrifice or of self-indulgence, habits of duty and honor and integrity—or dishonor and shame.

“Because when life does get tough, and the crisis is undeniably at hand—when we must, in an instant look inward for strength of character to see us through—we will find nothing inside ourselves that we have not already put there.”

Jesus Christ came from heaven to earth, not to snatch us away at the end of our lives, but to put a bit of himself into us here and now. At the end of his life, instead of calling on an angel army to pull him to safety, he chose to pass the rope to give us the chance for new life. Will we take hold of him, and make the daily choice to allow his character to flow into us?

The myths are true

My favorite movie is the Man Who Would be King (1975), based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling. Sean Connery and Michael Caine played former British soldiers, Daniel and Peachy, in India in the late 1800s who set out for a fictional country called Kafiristan. Their plan was to subvert the local chiefs and make themselves kings. 

According to the story, centuries before, Alexander the Great had conquered Kafiristan and made himself king. Under Alexander’s rule, Kafiristan prospered. When he left, he promised to one day send his son back to rule in his place. 

Centuries passed. Alexander’s promise to send his son became legend. But when Daniel and Peachy showed up, the people believed that Daniel was the son of Alexander returning to take his rightful place as king.   

Daniel and Peachy succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Kafiristan even prospered under them. That is until Daniel started believing he wasn’t just a king, but a god.

How is it that so many of our most popular myths involve a king who returns to set things right? 

In Robin Hood, England was in turmoil as it waited for King Richard to come home from the crusades. 

The third part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was called The Return of the King.

In the Disney hits The Lion King and Frozen, the rightful king (or queen) was missing in action. Someone had to show them their duty so they would take their rightful place and bring light and warmth back to the kingdom. 

What if there was a reality behind the myths? 

What if there really is an ultimate king, and all the stories, all the myths, point to him? 

The Bible says there is such a king, a creator who made everything and said it was good. God created human beings in God’s image, and for a brief time God and his people coexisted perfectly. It was when people decided to be their own kings that things fell apart.

What if our myths are a memory trace of paradise lost?

The Gospel writer John says, “The Word became flesh.”

The true King, Jesus Christ, has come to set all things right.

Following the science

In the sermon last week, I was trying to illustrate the vast creative power of Jesus Christ, who spoke everything into being, so I asked Google to tell me the number of galaxies in the universe.

Two trillion.

I was surprised, because the previous time I checked, the number was in the hundreds of billions.

The previous estimate was off by more than a trillion.

This week I checked Google again, and now the number is 125 billion.

I’m not making this up.

For some time now, our leaders have been telling us to “follow the science” when it comes to a host of issues. But “following the science” as a matter of public policy, without a basis in values we all agree on, is fraught with problems.

John Lennox, an Oxford professor of math and science, gave the following illustration:

Imagine your Aunt Matilda made a beautiful cake, and you took it to be analyzed by a group of the world’s top scientists.

The nutritionists told you the number of calories and the nutritional effects. 

The biochemists described the structure of proteins, fats, and so on. 

The physicists analyzed the cake in terms of fundamental particles. 

The mathematicians provided a set of equations to describe the behavior of the particles.

But then you asked the scientists one final question: Why was the cake made?

Only Aunt Matilda knows. 

Lennox said, “All the scientists in the world are not going to be able to answer that question, and it’s no insult to their disciplines that they can’t. The only way we’ll ever get an answer is if Aunt Matilda reveals it to us.”

The Gospel of John says that God has revealed his purpose for your life: To be in a relationship with the God who created you, and to reflect back to God a bit of his glory that he put in you. 

The scientists can describe you the same way they describe Aunt Matilda’s cake.

Only God can tell you what you’re worth.

One nation under God

I could say a lot about the sad spectacle of protestors-turned-rioters trashing the US Capitol this week, but I need to stick to my lane.

I’m a pastor.

It’s fashionable these days to bash the idea of American exceptionalism, but if America isn’t exceptional, why are we so upset about what we saw?

America truly is exceptional. Every other nation in history was based on tribe, religion, ethnicity, or place. But America was founded by people from different tribes, religions, ethnicities, and places.

They all had to cross an ocean in wooden ships to get here.

The nation they formed was based, not on tribe, religion, ethnicity, or geography, but on the truly exceptional idea that free people could govern themselves.

A nation…based on an idea?

What gave them the idea it could work? 


The founders understood that the Christian faith had created a shared sense of personal and public responsibility among the people of the colonies. Of course, not everyone believed, and there were vast differences in how faith was practiced. But enough did believe to create a shared expectation of how free people were supposed to behave.

The key was George Whitefield, the most important founding father you never heard of. Whitefield was a short, cross-eyed preacher from England who was the first truly international celebrity. Aside from George Washington, he was the most famous person in America. He attracted vast crowds; people would walk 20 miles or more to hear him. His clear voice allowed him to be heard by tens of thousands at once. His sermons made people weep, wealthy and poor alike.

Like no one before, Whitefield proclaimed the Gospel directly to the people, showing how all people were of infinite worth and beloved by God.

When Whitefield died in 1750, an incredible 80 percent of the people in the colonies had heard him in person. His legacy was a shared understanding of public virtue that made democracy possible.

But today, not nearly enough of us have heard the Gospel, and not nearly enough weep at its beauty. We’ve lost the shared understanding of public virtue that can only come from a Gospel understanding of the worth of each person.   

If you were sad or scared about what happened this week, there is something you can do:

Join a church that lives and proclaims the Gospel.

Worship. Bring your friends. Repeat.

Really, what’s your excuse? It’s not like you have to cross an ocean.

Odd truth

An epiphany is a sudden realization. 

In the church, Epiphany usually refers to the arrival of the Magi and the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles, meaning the non-Jewish world.

Author Flannery O’Connor is credited with paraphrasing a famous verse from John’s Gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” The revelation of Jesus to the world has always carried with it surprise and disruption.

And some people have always been offended.

If Jesus was rejected as a baby by the political powers of his day, and as an adult by the folks of his own hometown, why would we expect it to be different in our day? 

No matter how loving and winsome we are, no matter how dedicated and selfless our service to others, revealing Christ to the world carries with it the risk of rejection.

What’s more, we need to give ourselves over to a process of ongoing revelation. We need to continue to allow ourselves to be surprised by what God is doing in the world, and in and through us.

The Magi had open minds and a star to guide them. They didn’t mind travelling a long way to a far-off country where their pagan religion would have been odd, if not downright offensive.

But it was worth it to discover the truth of Jesus Christ.

Now it’s our turn to share the truth. The folks around us are depending on us for their epiphany.     

Who minds being a little odd?

Fear not

When I was a kid, I was always afraid to go to sleep on Christmas Eve. Year after year I had the same nightmare. I don’t remember the dream itself, but even today, I remember how terrified I was. I guess I was too wound up, or afraid Santa would pass our house by if I weren’t asleep.

We rarely focus on this—it doesn’t come out in children’s Christmas pageants—but the first Christmas began in terror for unsuspecting shepherds. Luke 2:9 says, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

The old King James translation says they were “sore afraid.”

The Greek word for fear, phobia, is used twice in this sentence, first as a verb and then as a noun, along with the adjective mega, meaning “great.” 

Literally, the shepherds were “greatly afraid, fearful, mega.”

Isn’t Christmas supposed to be about warm feelings?

And what were they afraid of? It could not have been because they forgot to buy batteries, or because their crazy uncle showed up unannounced.

Luke said it was God’s glory. The Divine Essence on display in the night sky. The manifestation of the excellence and power of God. They saw God for who God really was, and they realized who they were in comparison.

That’s the primal fear, the fear beneath all other fears. 

To overcome that fear, God had to do something that no other religion can comprehend: God was born for you.

God became vulnerable. God came in need of you. 

When you take the Christ child into your arms, God shines the light of his glory on you. God sees you for who you really are and finds you beautiful.

“Fear not,” says the God of Love. “I was born for you.”