For your good

I’ve shown thousands of people around our church building. They marvel at the place. They say it’s one of the most beautiful places they’ve ever seen.

And for the vast majority, it doesn’t seem to change them. But I pray that God used me to plant a seed of faith that the Holy Spirit can make grow.

Look around this place. Look at the windows. Look at the pulpit. 

Listen to the way the organ and percussion thunder.

What was the congregation 120 years ago experiencing when they built this place? 

Or, more precisely, who were they experiencing? 

They wanted this place to point to a reality that so many are out of touch with. 

In John 16:7, with the minutes ticking down until his betrayal, Jesus said, “It’s actually for your good that I’m going away.”

How could that be? 

What could be better than being in the presence of the Living God? 

It turns out that the work of the Holy Spirit in us is even better. 

Creation was about to be reborn. Something was about to die, but something new was about to rise. It was like the pangs of birth. Something was going to happen that made the agony worth it.

It’s the Holy Spirit working in us that this place points to.

It’s the Holy Spirit working in us, killing us off and raising us again, that this place points to.

If that makes no sense, give it time.

It’s all up to the Spirit in you and it’s all on the Spirit’s timing. 

You cannot expect to be reborn on your schedule any more than you could expect to be born the first time on your schedule. 

Quit treating God as your personal assistant.

Keep showing up here for worship, even when you don’t feel like it.

Especially when you don’t feel like it.

Meal to remember

Years ago, as a new Air Force colonel, I got to chair a 15-nation committee at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Part of my job was to attend meetings in capitals across Europe.

Tough duty, right?

Once I took Jana with me to a meeting in Madrid. The meetings were classified, but Jana could sightsee and hang out with the spouses during the day. At the end of the week, there was a banquet at a place with a spectacular view of the old city of Toledo. Somehow, the folks knew it was my birthday. Leaders from 15 nations sang “Happy Birthday” to me.

You don’t forget things like that.

Now, mostly I think God forms us into the creatures he intends us to be through the everyday experiences of life.

But he uses the big things too.

God puts events in our lives, anniversaries, celebrations, etc., that we’re meant to experience together

The greatest event—the defining event—in the life of ancient Israel was the Passover, the celebration of how God had rescued the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. Every Israelite, everywhere, celebrated the Passover meal the same way every year.

Until Jesus did what only God could do.

Hours before his arrest, Jesus redefined the whole thing.

From now on, the meal would celebrate Jesus as the rescuer, not of a nation, but of the whole human race.

From now on, this shared meal would form us—transform us—into a new kind of people.

That’s something to remember. And celebrate.


Many years ago, Jana and I were making our first trip to England. We were spending the night at a bed and breakfast and having a lovely chat with the innkeeper as he served us a drink. I made an offhand comment that something in the news was “disgusting.”

The innkeeper abruptly, but politely, stopped me. He said something about Americans not knowing the language. He pointed out that the word “disgusting” should only be used to describe the most vile and awful things. Words matter, he said, and whatever I’d been talking about wasn’t right, but it wasn’t “disgusting.”

The innkeeper was right, and he was so gracious about correcting me, that instead of being embarrassed, it became a lesson I never forgot.

Words matter.

And so, I give you the word “amen.”

In biblical Greek, it’s ἀμήν.

Everyone says it, including nonbelievers, all the time.

We hear it at the end of a prayer and assume it’s just a formality, like adding a period at the end of a sentence.

The Old King James Bible says “verily.”

The New International Version says, “truly.”

Google, “amen” and the response is, “so be it.”

The synonym finder in Microsoft Word comes up with “I agree” and “you bet.”

A simple, throwaway word?

But what about when God uses it?

When Jesus says, “Truly I tell you…” he’s beginning a sentence with ἀμήν and saying, “Listen up! This is God speaking!”

When you hear Jesus say, “Truly” or “Verily” what he says next is truly, ultimately, always, and forever, important.

Life or death important.

Your eternal soul depends on this important.

Stop what you’re doing and listen up.


Clever stories

Back in 2012, Harvard professor Karen King announced that she had translated the words from a tiny scrap of papyrus from the fourth century. The words were supposedly a copy of an early Christian gospel written in the late second century. The translation appeared to quote Jesus as referring to “my wife,” Mary Magdalene.

The announcement made front pages all over the country. Reporters said it called into question traditional beliefs about marriage.

But within days, more experts came forward. The owner of the fragment refused to be identified. No one knew where it came from. It hadn’t been fully tested. Harvard officials began to waffle; King’s work had not been peer reviewed. The fragment was likely a modern forgery.  

In 2020, CNN did a story on the incident: “How a mysterious man fooled a Harvard scholar into believing the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ was real.” CNN said that King thought her “discovery” would “validate her life’s work: claiming a place for women in the early days of Christianity.” Instead, the story “capsized her career.”

“Discoveries” like this usually come out around the holidays: An ancient text has been found that should be in the Bible but isn’t. The stories suggest there were factions vying to be the one true church, and the Bible was written by the winners. Others say the stories about Jesus were legends or were made up after his death. 

So, can we trust what’s in the Bible? 

The Apostle Peter said, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 

Evidently Peter had the same problem we do. Peter is saying, “It’s not made up. I was there. I saw Jesus with my own eyes.” 

The truth is, the New Testament was written too early to be legend. The people who wrote the New Testament were either witnesses or had met the original witnesses. The New Testament was completed within their lifetimes. The supposed new “discoveries” were written centuries later.

The style of writing point to eyewitness accounts.

If you were making up a new religion, you would never include stories that made you look so bad. But that’s just what the disciples did. 

We’re all like the professor. We all love stories which reinforce our worldview.

But a god of your own making is no help at all.

Clever stories can’t save you. Only the Truth can.

The plural you

One of the great things about the Christian faith is how it both affirms the best, and challenges the worst, in every culture.

For example, Americans have more freedom to pursue their faith compared to any society in history. But at the same time, we’re more inclined to view faith individualistically than any culture in history.

We make a “personal decision” for Jesus.

We have a “personal relationship” with him.

We say, “I’m a spiritual person.”

OK, but then what do we do with the stories in Acts 10 and Acts 16, where whole households were baptized at once? It’s hard to make the case that everyone there made a “personal decision” for Jesus.  

What do we do about the plural “you?”

In our culture, when we hear the word “you” we assume it’s singular. In the English language, the plural “you” is exactly the same as the singular “you.” Unless the context clearly says otherwise, we assume the “you” is singular.

But the Greek language has different words for the singular and plural “you.”

And in the New Testament, the “you” is almost always plural.

It’s impossible to overstate what a challenge this is to the American understanding of faith.

Faith must be lived in community.

We are a chosen people; we are a royal priesthood.

We are called out of darkness into light together.

We each have gifts that God gave us so that others can grow in faith.

We each have needs that God intended to be met by others.

There are deep theological reasons why, say, the pandemic lockdowns were so devastating.

Our culture would have us believe that life is “all about you.”

It is.

The plural “you.”

Abode of the…vicious?

“During the past 10 or 15 years, a growing condition and a growing problem have confronted this church. From being a church situated in the center of the resident portion of the city, it became a church situated in the business portion of the city. Its environment, instead of being the abodes of wealth and social influence, has become the abodes of the poor, and in many instances, of the vicious.”

Any guesses where those words came from?

They were said in our church on Palm Sunday, April 16, 1905, by then 38-year-old Maitland Alexander, as First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh dedicated its grand new building. In his sermon, Alexander described the unique legacy of a city’s first church, and how its history informed its mission.

Alexander was realistic about the challenges, too. He said there were, “Thousands of unshepherded children and thousands of nominal Christians, whose real religious vitality is at a low ebb.” It would be, “The aim of this church to get these under its influence and help.”

He had the audacity to expect members to come back to a downtown that had grown dirty, choked with soot from steel mills, trains, and steamboats, driving residents to the suburbs.

In the same Monday, April 17, 1905 issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette that covered the dedication (all the Monday papers included Alexander’s sermon verbatim), there was a story of how police had raided eight “speakeasys” downtown.

We sometimes forget that the drug that devastated cities a hundred years ago was alcohol. 

The word that Alexander used to describe the church’s neighborhood was “vicious.”

Surprisingly, Alexander said little about his preaching text, 1 Kings 8:54-56, Solomon’s words at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem.

Maybe Alexander didn’t need to add anything.

Sometimes God’s word needs no exposition.  

“Blessed be the LORD…,” Solomon said, “There hath not failed one word of all his good promise, which he promised by the hand of Moses his servant.”

The neighborhood will change.

Sometimes it might seem “vicious.”

But God’s word never fails.

Prone to wander

One of the misconceptions I had when I became a minister was thinking that my most important job was to bring people into the church and get them to join. I think churches that consider themselves “evangelical” make a similar mistake when they urge people to say the “sinner’s prayer.”

As if bringing people in the door and getting them saved is all there is to a life of faith.

Now it is important to join the church. Jesus called the church his “bride” (Ephesians 5:22-23). It’s his gift to humankind. Its purpose is to put hell out of business (Matthew 16:18).

And without confessing your sin, the blessings of salvation can’t flow into your life.

But joining the church and confessing your sin are just the beginning of a life of faith.

This week we’re going to sing one of the most beloved traditional hymns, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The hymn was written by Robert Robinson in 1758.

Robinson was born in England in 1735. He father died when Robinson was eight. When Robinson was 14, his mother sent him to London to learn to be a barber.

Robinson fell in with the wrong crowd and became part of a gang. One day the gang decided to crash a meeting where the great evangelist George Whitefield was preaching. It seems they went to “scoff at the poor, deluded Methodists.”

Instead of scoffing, Robinson was converted. He became a minister and went on to write books and hymns, of which the most famous was, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

The second verse of the hymn includes the phrase, “Here I raise my Ebenezer…” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, where Samuel raised up a “stone of help” as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to Israel. We need “Ebenezers” to remind ourselves that God is faithful, even when we’re not.

And we need Ebenezers because, as Robinson wrote in the third verse, we’re “prone to wander.”

Robinson knew his own heart. It turned out that even he was “prone to wander.”

The story goes that sometime later in life, Robinson was riding in a stagecoach where a woman passenger was studying a hymnbook. The two struck up a conversation. The woman asked Robinson what he thought of the hymn she was humming. Through tears, Robinson replied, “Madam, I am the poor, unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”

We may be saved once and for all, but our hearts are “prone to wander.”

We need “stones of help.” We need the church.

We need something to point us, again and again and again, to the ultimate “stone of help,” Jesus Christ.

Stones don’t stack themselves

Have you noticed that it’s almost impossible to be amazed?

Today, anything people can imagine can be digitized. Ducks, geckos, and emus sell insurance.

You have to be purposeful if you want to be amazed. You have to stop and wonder. For example, a single-cell organism is more complex that any machine humans have ever imagined, but we dismiss them as “simple.”

Lots of times when God did something amazing in the life of his people, he told them to stack up stones to commemorate the occasion.

Simple, right?

Yet, stacking stones is inconvenient.

You wouldn’t stack them up for fun, the way you might make a snowman.

So if you lived in Old Testament times, and you came across standing stones, you’d be left to stop and wonder: what do these stones mean?

When God brought his people into the Promised Land, they had to cross the Jordan River at flood stage. God stopped the water, just like he’d done forty years before at the Red Sea.

So God told Joshua to take twelve stones, one per tribe, and stack them up.

God had given his people freedom from slavery, and now he was the one bringing them home. He wanted future generations to remember that.

Stones don’t usually stack themselves.

When you see them stacked up, one on top of the other, like in a great old church building like ours, you need to stop and wonder.

What do these stones mean?

What great things has God done here?

Stone for a pillow

For the first 50 years or so of my life I never imagined being a minister. I always belonged to a church, and Jana made sure we attended most of the time. But when asked to serve, I usually said that I was too busy. In looking back, I probably disappointed more than a few pastors who might have hoped that that I would get more involved.

Now I tell people that if I can be a minister, you can too.

If God wants you to do something, God will eventually get God’s way.

Take Jacob, for example.

God had called Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, to be the founder of a new nation. God chose Abraham’s son, Isaac, to carry on the legacy. Both of those men had powerful experiences of God’s call on their lives.

But when Jacob and his older twin, Esau, were born to Isaac, they didn’t have a great experience of God. If Jacob and his brother heard their father tell stories of God, the stories didn’t sink in. Just as bad, Isaac’s family was dysfunctional. He favored Esau while his wife favored Jacob.

Jacob grew up to be a conniving mess.

God’s plan to build a great nation seemed hopeless.

Genesis 28 picks up the story with Jacob on the run from his brother who wanted him dead. He must have left in such a hurry that he had no provisions, for when he stopped for the night, he had to use a stone for a pillow.

When all seemed lost for Jacob, that’s when God showed up in a big way. God gave him a vision of a stairway stretching all the way between heaven and earth. On the stairway were angels going up and down, spreading out across the earth. Above it all was God, looking down on Jacob and everything else.

God’s angels were everywhere.

God had been with Jacob all along.

Are you so low that you’re using a stone for a pillow?

Think God can’t use you?

God used a conniving mess named Jacob to transform the world.

What’s important

As I write this, the prayers of millions are focused on a young football player, Damar Hamlin, who collapsed on the field last Monday night. By all accounts, Damar is a Jesus follower and a man of character. He’s also an elite athlete. Last Monday, millions watched in shock and sadness, and for a moment at least, were left to contemplate what’s important in life.

This Sunday, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we again contemplate what’s important in life.

When couples bring their child to be baptized, I remind them there will be moments when they will be terrified for their child’s health: A little one struggles to breathe in the middle of the night; her fever spikes, prompting a panicked rush to the ER.

In those moments of terror, we remember our Baptism.

We remember that we are not our own. Our children are not our own. We belong to an eternal God who first gave himself to us. 

John the Baptist had said that Jesus would come to baptize people with fire. Instead, Jesus showed up asking to be baptized by John. There was no fire and John was horrified. He said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 

New Testament scholar Dale Bruner said this was the first miracle of Jesus: the miracle of his humility. The miracle that God was willing to go down with the whole human race into the waters of repentance and baptism. 

Jesus began his life as a baby in the manger, but he began his ministry in a river with sinners.

His life ended with prayers for us on a cross between sinners. 

His entire ministry was down at our level; identifying with us; one with us in our humanity.

We’re his.

In life and in death, we’re his.

That’s what’s important in life.