Preaching and the Prodigal Son

I often sit at my desk on Monday morning after a tiring and refreshing Sunday, and say to myself “Here I go again!” I just finished preaching and leading a liturgical service the day before, fellowshiped in the afternoon, and on Monday morning I am ready to begin that process all over again. I hear many pastors take Mondays off, but on Mondays I am on. I am motivated to find the best resources, the best applications to feed my congregation the following Sunday.

Preaching through Luke this Lenten Season has been part of this motivation. Luke has become dear to me. His attention to details, his emphasis on the Word-authority of Jesus, and his unique description in chapter 15 make Luke unique among the Gospel writers. What is in chapter 15? Chapter 15 describes–among many other things–the lostness of the son, and the found-ness of the Father. The Father finds what He lost; the Son lost what He had, and the elder brother belittled the feast of the found one.

Preaching through this section is filled with remarkable challenges. What to emphasize? What is central to this text? Father or sons? Or both? How is Jesus connecting the lostness of Israel to this text? What is the significance of the feast imageries in the reception of the prodigal son? What does repentance look like? In what way is the Father’s profound forgiveness like our heavenly Father’s forgiveness? How is the elder brother’s reaction much like ours? How is his reaction much like the Jews of the first century? Suffice to say, these are only initial questions to pose in this ocean of beauty and grace.

Once again I am confronted with the glorious task of savoring this text as much as it is possible before I can give my parishioners a sample of it as well. May this sermon do justice to this remarkable and rich passage of Holy Scriptures.

Guilt, Grace, and Galileans

The Gospel Lesson for this Lord’s Day is from Luke 13:1-13. Pilate’s brutality is fully on display right in verse one: “Pilate had mingled Galilean blood with their sacrifices.” “Are these Galileans worse than other Galileans because they suffered in this way?, was the question our Lord posed.

Jesus did not spend his time in Luke’s account offering a philosophical exegesis of theodicy.[1] Rather, he simply “said, “If you don’t repent, you will likewise perish.” “But Rabbi, I want a more profound answer to this intellectual dilemma. I want to know the ins and outs of your divine and decretal will. I want to be able to rationalize every detail of your purposes in life and in death.” Jesus had a different agenda. Jesus sees death, as Richard Hays observes, as “an occasion for metanoia.[2] Jesus did not offer words of religious comfort to appease the inquirer, no; he used it as an opportunity to express something very central to his Kingdom Gospel: repentance. The word repentance implies turning away, or a change of mind. But biblically, it is more than that. Repentance means turning away from something and embodying a view of life diametrically opposed to the one previously expressed.

It is not enough to turn from something without knowing where you are turning to. Otherwise, that turn might lead you back to the sin that entangled you. Jesus wants us to avoid this vicious cycle.

Suffering and pain are caused for a host of reasons that many times are unknown to us in this life. But one response is absolutely sure: repentance. The tragic events that occur in this life are tragic because they expose the mortality of humanity.[3] The sudden difficult events that shake our very beings (and in some cases our faith) deal with the uniqueness and temporariness of the un-resurrected corporeal nature.

The human tendency is to compare sinners so that we may excuse ourselves. After all, it is easier to point to someone else’s sinfulness than our own. But Jesus wants Israel to consider her sins, and as a result, our own, and see if repentance is being expressed in light of what has happened.

The patience of God endures, but it is not forever. Historical tragedies of great and small proportions should cause us to seek forgiveness and to consider whether we are bearing fruits of repentance.

[1] Though the prophets before Him and the New Testament provides a healthy theology of good and evil, and God’s Just and Perfect ways.

[2] Hays, Richard. On Hearing Bad News, Living by the Word; The Christian Century.

[3] Bock, Darrell, The NIV Application Commentary, 365

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

Saturday Night Live (SNL), DJesus Uncrossed, the Romans, the Jews and the God of the Bible

DJesus UnCrossed is SNL’s latest attempt to de-christ Christ. Of course, in our day, Jesus is easy to disrespect. One wonders if SNL would attempt a comedy journey through the life of Muhammad. No further comments needed.

David Flowers believes that the skit has something to teach us, and that we should begin to listen to our critics. He argues that the skit has hermeneutical problems, but that it shows our hypocrisy and inconsistency in our faith. Flowers argues that this is the result of an American-shaped Jesus. He is correct to assert that humor has a way of offending Christians and revealing weaknesses and hypocrisy. We should be aware of them.

The Jesus raised from the dead murdering Romans out of revenge seems bizarre in light of the biblical narrative. Flowers is correct to assert that it reveals the Jesus kick-ass motif portrayed by many in our evangelical culture. It is easy to object to the video’s false portrayals, but in what sense is this skit true, even with its exaggerative and faulty hermeneutics? There is something to be learned here. Flowers is correct that we are to listen to our critics. The point, however, is that our critics don’t go far enough.

Surely the 2nd Amendment Rights’ Jesus is very American and Neo-Conservative like. But that doesn’t even begin to describe the type of justice-driven Messiah we as Orthodox Christians believe.

For starters, we believe in a Messiah that is ascended to the right hand of the Father, and from that place of kingship rules and reigns over us and creation. He is not an unmoved Mover. Further, Jesus did not have the Romans in mind when He judged, He had the corrupt and idolatrous first century Jewish generation in mind. Upon them, He brought a profound tribulation (Mt. 24). The Gospel Lesson this Sunday is Luke 13:31-35 where Jesus laments over Jerusalem. He sought her with love, but she continued to kill and murder the prophets sent with a message of salvation and deliverance. The vengeful Jesus portrayed by SNL has no interest in context, but it should well observe that the Messiah who destroys is first the Messiah who shows mercy.

How Can we Learn from SNL?

First, Saturday Night Live is not a theology show. Its humor is devoid of accuracy, and frankly, that is not their interest. They have been on the air for 37 years because of their exaggerated (especially in the last ten years) view of current events. This is important to keep in mind.

Secondly, use these opportunities to correct false information. Bill Maher, the well-known HBO atheist host, does this better than anyone I know. He takes a portion of Scriptures and twists its meaning in a fashion that would make even the devil jealous. This is a good time for Christians to be hermeneutically savvy. In fact, go ahead and make a t-shirt with that slogan “I am hermeneutically savvy.”

Thirdly, do not allow an exclusively New Covenant narrative to shape your theology. As James Jordan observes: “The division of the Bible into “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is merely for convenience, for the Scriptures are one narrative from beginning to end.” It is important to note also that this one narrative portrays God as a God of justice who says all vengeance belongs to Him. The modern Marcionites have failed us just as much as SNL has.

Finally, remember that the life of Jesus–especially as we meditate upon it in this Lenten Season–is a life of cross before glory; suffering before resurrection. The Jesus that came out of the grave was first a Jesus that came riding on a donkey as the Prince of Peace. But that same Jesus has promised to come again riding a horse of judgment upon Jerusalem and upon all those who despise His Name.

Translation of Luke 13:31-35

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is from St. Luke 13:31-35. Here is my translation of this text:

31 -In that same hour, some Pharisees came up, saying to Him: “Go away and leave this place. Herod wants to kill you.”

32 – And He said to them: Go and tell that fox, ‘Look, I am going to expel (exorcise) demons and cure people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my agenda.

33 – Nevertheless it is necessary that I journey today and tomorrow, and on the following day; for it cannot happen that a prophet perish except[1] in Jerusalem.[2]

34 – Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You are the one killing the prophets and stoning the ones sent to you! How often did I want to bring you together[3], like a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you refused to do so.

35 – Look, your house is left to you desolate,[4] and I say to you, you will not see Me until you are prepared to say, ‘Blessed is the One coming in the name of the Lord.’

[1] N.T. Wright translates it this way in his The Kingdom New Testament.

[2] Or “outside” Jerusalem. The idea, however, is that this is the only appointed place for Jesus to die.

[3] “Collect” or “gather”

[4] It has been abandoned. The glory has departed.

Lent: The Devil’s Gifts, Luke 4:1-13 (Audio Sermon at Providence Church)

In this sermon, I discuss the nature of Jesus’ three temptations and how Jesus overcame them with God’s word. I also touch on the typological connections between the first Edenic temptation and the wilderness testing in Luke 4.


God’s House of Healing

Healing is a highly liturgical act. Jesus demonstrates this in a variety of ways, and we too ought to demonstrate it. The idea of cessationism does not do justice to the normative function of the New Creation Church. Cessationism implies a form of termination from those acts which I believe are actually accentuated for us in this age. As I have argued elsewhere, John Frame’s language of semi-cessationism (or what I call transformationism) is a much better term to describe this theological concept. There is no doubt in my mind that those gifts– particularly healing–had a distinct function. Jesus was exorcising Satan, sickness, and sin. This is a form of healing the nations from demonic oppression. The Kingdom of God was coming by force. But this healing now takes on an ecclesiastical shape. Healing is still healing. Satan, sickness, and sin are still exorcised, but through the body and through unique functions of the body. Jesus’ healing ministry takes on a new form in the midst of the holy assembly.

What Jesus does in Luke is a model for what the Church does in Acts and throughout. The mission of the Church is bound up in healing the nations. But she does this through different means. She does this by upholding and supporting institutions that cherish God’s justice, by nurturing her people from brokenness to health, and from mourning to joy. The Church is a healing place. In worship, God’s people are experiencing the healing power of forgiveness and the constant pain of that divine surgery performed by the piercing Word of the Lord.

Liturgy is a form of healing. As Rich Lusk observed: “Liturgy is the ultimate form of pastoral care and nurture.” Why is it crucial to be in Church and of the Church? Because it is there through the different liturgical experiences that the soul and body are nurtured. It is there where theological medicine is given and where healing is found.

The Church also does this outside of her gathered body. She ministers healing through deeds of mercy. She provides healing to the divorced and widow. She prepares meals and brings joy to the recovering mother after birth. She provides healing through encouragement and exhortation. In short, healing is a highly liturgical act. The Church continues what our Lord started. She does this through means, through oil (James 5), through Word and Sacrament, through rebuke and rejoicing. The Church is God’s house of healing.

Third Sunday of Easter; Luke 24:13-35: Resurrection Perplexity and Gospel Confirmation


Introduction: People of God, in this gospel lesson we see the end of history breaking in in the middle of history in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our nearest Kinsman. Amen.

Sermon: On this third Sunday of Easter, we are confronted and challenged by a strange conversation. The context of this conversation is the empty tomb. The women have come to apply spices to the body of Jesus. The Jewish Sabbath prohibited them from doing this, so they came on the first day. Notice right from the beginning that there is a movement. The Jewish world is passing away, and the new world is emerging. In Luke, the women are perplexed. As they are wondering what may have happened to the body of our Lord, the Bible tells us that two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. This is not the first time the angels appear. They appeared to bring glad tidings of the birth of our Lord and they appear again to bring glad tidings of the new birth of our Lord from the dead. More