Sermons

When in Romans: Children of God

First Baptist Richmond, July 23, 2023
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 8:12-25

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

            Next Sunday morning I’m teaching a combined adult Sunday school class called “What’s in a Name? A Look at our Baptist Identity,” partly because the recent brouhaha about Southern Baptists and female pastors left people wondering: are we that kind of Baptists, and if not, then what kind of Baptists are we? I’ve been pondering that question and some of my thoughts have focused on the word Baptist itself.  It’s a transliteration of the Greek verb baptizo, which means “I baptize,” and carries the idea of plunging a dirty dish rag under water to rinse it clean. But we don’t baptize dish rags; we baptize people.  And somehow that unusual practice has become the way we identify ourselves.

I was talking to a Lutheran pastor last week and said, “Your denominational identity comes from an actual person: Martin Luther, the great reformer.” And then I turned to an Episcopal priest and said, “And your identity comes from your church structure, where the head of the church is the bishop, or in Greek, the episcopos. But my denominational identity comes from the practice of plunging people under water, which must mean more to us than almost anything else that we do.”

            And it does.

            When I try to explain baptism to young people I begin by saying, “It’s like a bath, you know? When you come in from playing in the back yard on a rainy day and you’re covered in mud your mother might say, ‘You’re going straight to the bathtub!’ Well, that’s kind of what it’s like to be baptized. You get into the baptistery covered in sin. I dip you down under the water and (with the Lord’s help) you come up clean. But it’s not only like a bath,” I say. “It’s also like a death. Remember how Jesus died, and was buried, and then rose again on the third day? Well, when you are baptized you identify with Jesus so closely that it’s like dying with him, and being buried with him, and rising with him. I lower you into a watery ‘grave’ and then bring you up to a whole new life.” They usually wrinkle their noses at that one, but then I say, “And it’s also like a birth. When you were born you came into the world and took your first breath. When you are baptized there will be a moment (but only a moment) when you are under water and can’t breathe, but when you come up you will take your first breath of your new life in Christ. It’s like being born again.”

            Bath. Death. Birth. That’s how I try to infuse this unusual practice with meaning, so that when that young person is standing waist-deep in the water she will be thinking about all those things. But for the Apostle Paul, baptism may have meant even more. In Romans 6 he talks about it as a kind of death and resurrection, but in today’s reading from Romans 8 he makes a reference to baptism that you might not even catch if you weren’t paying attention, or if you didn’t know how people baptized in Paul’s day. I had to look it up in one of my old seminary textbooks, The First Urban Christians, by Wayne Meeks.[i]

When Meeks describes first-century baptism he talks about it as an initiation ritual and includes a drawing that looks like stair steps going down and then coming up again. He writes about those converts to Christianity stepping down into the waters of baptism by giving up their old way of life, swearing off their old vices, giving up their old loyalties, leaving their old, dirty clothes on the riverbank, and entering the waters of baptism naked as the day they were born (this may be a good time to remind you that men and women were baptized separately, and that women were baptized by female deacons as a practical necessity). At any rate, it was then, when they were standing waist-deep in the waters of baptism, that they were asked to confess their faith, and when they did they said, “Jesus is Lord!” which was not only a way of swearing allegiance to their new master but giving up any allegiance to the old one. Saying “Jesus is Lord” was another way of saying “Caesar is not”; it was a radical, counter-cultural confession, and the complete opposite of the love affair some Christians seem to have with Caesar these days.

And then they would be dipped down under the water, washed, perhaps even “buried” before coming up to a whole new life. They would rise from the river like Jesus coming up out of the grave, and put on a new white robe as a symbol of their new life in Christ. And then (Meeks wasn’t sure about this) the congregation may have begun to sing and celebrate, and the newly baptized Christians may have been lifted up like the bride and groom at a Jewish wedding, which would have been the perfect opportunity for them to shout out the word Abba! meaning “Father!” as a sign of their adoption into the family of God.

            If you can picture that scene in your mind you can see what a meaningful ritual it might have been, and how Baptists might have been inspired to name themselves after it. When I was talking to that Episcopal priest last week I said, “For you it might be communion, the Holy Eucharist, and if you had to come up with a new name for yourselves it might be Eucharisteans.” But for Paul it might have been baptism. It was the initiation ritual of the early church. It was how those pagans to whom he was preaching, and those Gentiles he used to refer to as “dogs,” became his brothers and sisters in Christ. And that’s what you may have missed in today’s Epistle reading.

Paul doesn’t say he’s talking about baptism, but if you were familiar with that ritual and the way it was practiced in the first century you might know exactly what he meant when he wrote: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” He meant, “When you were baptized you did not receive a spirit of slavery.” No, he might have said, “When you were baptized you received the Holy Spirit, and when we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

            And that opens up a whole new topic.

            If you’ve been following this series you know that Paul spends the better part of seven chapters in Romans talking about sin, and how it separates us from God, and how we need to be justified by the grace of God, through our faith in Christ Jesus, in order to have peace with God. But once that happens there is “no longer any condemnation” for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. We don’t have to worry about that anymore. We can turn our attention to other, better, things. And what Paul turns his attention to is the fact that when we are baptized—whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female—we are baptized into the family of God, and when we cry out, “Abba! Father!” it is the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children. Which is an incredible thing for Paul to say!

He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. He was circumcised on the eighth day as a sign that he was one of God’s chosen people. For Paul to say that anyone could now be a member of God’s family simply by trusting Jesus was incredible, but for him the Holy Spirit was proof.

You may remember that story from Acts, chapter 10, where Peter is preaching to Cornelius and his family when the Holy Spirit falls on them and they begin to praise God. Peter, who had just reminded Cornelius that Jews and Gentiles have nothing to do with each other, now turns to his colleagues and says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Paul seems to believe that these two things go together: baptism and the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12 he writes, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ without the help of the Holy Spirit.” And in Romans 8 he writes, “When we say ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”

The Spirit knows; the Spirit has arranged our adoption; the Spirit has brought us into the family.  And that’s why, as Paul says at the beginning of today’s passage, we are indebted to the Spirit. But then he says something even more incredible: he says that if we are God’s children then we are also heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Which means that along with Jesus, his beloved Son, we Christians stand to inherit every good thing God has to give.

In this series I’ve been saying that peace with God may have been what Paul was looking for his entire life. In many ways it is the good news of his gospel. But this is pretty good news too, isn’t it? It’s like Paul is holding up a picture of the universe and saying to the church, “Someday all this will be yours.”

Last Tuesday afternoon I bumped into Donna Earley in the hallway. Donna is our Director of Stewardship and Development. She showed me a check she had just received for $126,000. It was because one of our members had decided to write the church into her will years ago, and when she died there was more money there than she had probably ever imagined. The ten percent that she had promised to First Baptist Church turned out to be $126,000 and Donna was very grateful. That check was good news indeed!

Can you imagine Paul saying to you, “Oh, by the way…in addition to having your sins forgiven, and in addition to having peace with God, and in addition to having the prospect of eternal life, you also stand to inherit every good thing God has to give? That’s good news! But it reminds me of that thing people sometimes say: “If you’re so smart, then why aren’t you rich?” I can imagine someone looking at Paul when he was locked up in the Philippian jail, beaten and bloody, and wondering, “If you’re a child of God, why should you have to suffer?” But Paul knows: the beloved Son of God had to suffer! That’s just how it is now. The whole creation is groaning now. But one of these days all that will be behind us, and just as the broken body of Christ was raised on Easter Sunday, so, too, will all creation be redeemed.

I think of this as the mission of God—the missio Dei. In fact I often say it this way, that “the mission of God is the redemption of all creation.” And if that’s true, then it is very good news indeed. Because we live in a broken world, don’t we? As I speak wildfires are raging in Canada. Plastic debris is swirling in the North Pacific Ocean. The Colorado River is drying up. New England has been swamped by floods. And that’s not to mention the famines and earthquakes in other parts of the world, the conflicts and wars. It’s not to mention the trauma experienced by plants and animals, fish and fowl, around the globe. The whole of creation is groaning, Paul writes. Suffering. And if we are sensitive to that suffering at all we feel it. We feel it for the world. We feel it for ourselves. What we want—what the world wants—is redemption. We want God to put us back together again, to help us, to heal us, to make us whole.

Well, it’s coming, Paul says, but it’s not here yet. We have to hope for it, we have to pray for it, we have to work for it. And maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about the old, medieval cathedrals. It started last Saturday when I was having breakfast with Daniel Hocutt, our Deacon Chair, but I’ve talked to a number of other people since. I’ve been thinking about how the citizens of a French village might have gotten together during the Middle Ages and decided to build a cathedral, but how they must have known that such things take time. It could take a hundred years to build a cathedral. The people who drew up the plans and laid the foundations would die before they ever saw it finished. Another generation would come along to put up the buttresses and walls. Another generation would come along to put up the rafters and the roof. And maybe another generation would come along to install the stained glass windows. Meaning that most of the people who worked on that cathedral would never see the finished product, but I’m guessing that all the people who worked on it saw that vision in their heads.

The vision of the completed cathedral was what kept them working in the same way the vision of a redeemed creation is what will keep us hoping. We have to hold it right here in our heads—that image of clean oceans and lush prairies, and happy well-fed people living at peace in every part of the world. It’s one of the reasons I love the song, “America the Beautiful.” It’s aspirational. It doesn’t so much describe the reality that exists as the one we hope for:

O, beautiful,

For spacious skies

For amber waves of grain

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain.

America, America,

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea.

And what about the verse that says:

O, beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam

Undimmed by human tears

America, America

God mend thine every flaw

Confirm thy soul in self control

Thy liberty in law.

Maybe it’s that sort of vision that will keep us working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. We know it’s not here yet. We can see that God’s kingdom hasn’t come. But here in our heads we can see what our city would look like if God’s will were done on earth, as it is in heaven, and so we keep on working toward that, hoping for that, believing that someday all this will be ours and wanting it to be, O, beautiful!

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1983), pp. 150-157.

When in Romans: Life and Peace

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

            It’s good to be back!

            I’ve been to two big Baptist meetings while I was away and visited three different countries. I hiked to the top of Pulpit Rock in Norway, went swimming in a lake in Sweden, and flew through the streets of Copenhagen on a bicycle. I came home sunburned, blistered, and bug bit, which for me only means that I’ve had a great vacation. But it’s good to be back and especially good to be back with you. I’ve said it before, but there is no place I would rather be on a Sunday morning than right here at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

It’s good to see you.

I’m grateful to Steve Blanchard and Allison Collier for filling the pulpit so capably while I was away. Steve preached from the Old Testament and Allison preached from the Gospel, but I’m going to continue this series called, “When in Romans,” based on the epistle of the same name. We’ve already worked our way through the first few chapters, looking at how Paul understands the human condition: despairing over the depravity of the pagan world in chapter 1, but recognizing in chapter 2 that those who claim to be religious are not much better. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” he writes in chapter 3, and for Paul, sin is a problem. In fact, it may be the problem. He uses the word 59 times in the Book of Romans and when he does he makes it clear that sin is what separates us from God. It’s what makes it impossible for us to have a relationship with him that is both life-giving and life-changing. “What we need is to be justified,” Paul says, that is, made right with God, and in chapter 4 he explains that we do that through faith. In the same way Abraham trusted God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness, we can trust Jesus to do whatever it takes to make us right with God. And Jesus has. Now, Paul writes in chapter 5, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And as I said, that may have been what Paul had been looking for his entire life. 

            “What then,” he asks, at the beginning of chapter 6: “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Absolutely not! The old you was buried in the waters of baptism. What came up was a whole new you, ready to live a whole new life. Sin shouldn’t have any part of that life. You should be done with sin forever!”

            Should be.

But the way Paul talks about sin in chapter 7 makes me think that even he wasn’t completely done with it. “I want to do what is right,” he says, “but I can’t.  There seems to be some lower nature in me, at war with my better self, that makes me want to do the things I know I shouldn’t do. When I want to do what is right I end up doing wrong, and when I try to stay away from what is wrong I still can’t seem to do what is right. What’s the matter with me? Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And then he answers his own question. “Thanks be to God,” he says, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And that leads him to a whole new line of reasoning.

            At the beginning of chapter 8 he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and when I read those words this time around I remembered a Time magazine cover from 2011 that asked the question, “What if there’s no hell?” It was a reference to a book called Love Wins, by Rob Bell, in which he argued that it isn’t God’s will that anyone should perish.[i] When I read that article in 2011 I thought, “Well, that’s true; it isn’t God’s will that anyone should perish.” But I also wondered: “Does that mean there isn’t a hell, and if that’s true, then what becomes of Christianity?”     New Testament scholar Marcus Borg once observed that for many Christians, “the afterlife is central.” He said that in the Lutheran church of his boyhood the promise of heaven and the specter of hell loomed large. “Indeed,” he wrote, “if you had been able to convince me at age twelve that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea why I should be a Christian.”[ii] So if there’s no hell Christianity crumbles, right? Or wrong?

            When I read that verse at the beginning of Romans 8, and remembered that Time magazine article from 2011, it struck me that Paul would answer the question of whether or not there is a hell by saying there isn’t. Not for those who are in Christ Jesus. They might be judged but they won’t be condemned. Christ has already taken their condemnation for them. He has literally gone to hell for them. So they can stop worrying about that, and for some people that would be a tremendous relief.

Because there are still churches where the afterlife is central, where the promise of heaven and the specter of hell loom large. When I started preaching nearly forty years ago there were a few members of that rural Kentucky church who seemed disappointed that I wasn’t more of a fire and brimstone preacher. “That’s what brings them down the aisle!” they would say, suggesting that it was my job to scare the hell out of people. Some preachers still try to do that. But according to the latest surveys sixty percent of Americans don’t even believe in hell anymore. Another thirty percent would say that when it comes to religion they don’t believe much of anything at all. And I suspect there is a relationship between those two numbers: that if you don’t believe in hell then, like 12-year-old Marcus Borg, you may wonder why you should be a Christian at all.

            But please notice that Paul didn’t say there is no hell. He only said that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He might say that hell is as real as it’s ever been but those who are in Christ Jesus don’t have to worry about it anymore, they don’t have to be afraid. They are free at last to live the life God has given them. So I’m wondering: what does that even mean? What does it mean to be in Christ Jesus? I’ve been thinking about it for weeks and I think I’ve come up with an analogy that even Paul would approve.

Have you ever taken a sponge that is dry and hard and dropped it into a sink full of warm, soapy water? Something happens to that sponge: it begins to soak up that warm, soapy water until it is completely saturated, soft, and pliable. You can pick it up, squeeze it, and warm, soapy water will trickle down your forearm. I think Paul might say that’s what happens to us in baptism. We are baptized into Christ Jesus, he says, like a dry, hard sponge dipped into a sink full of liquid divinity. We soak up the nature of Christ, the spirit of Christ, until it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. But here’s the problem: if you put that soaking wet sponge on a windowsill in the sunshine and leave it there for a few days, it will get dry and hard again. And what about us? In the hours after our baptism we were radiant. We had been baptized into Christ Jesus and it showed. Our faces shone like the sun. But then weeks went by, months, and that holy glow began to dim. And if your baptism was it—if that was your first and last experience of the divine—then your soul may have eventually become as dry and hard as that sponge on the windowsill.

            So, what’s the remedy? Do you get baptized again, and again, and again? Do you come down the aisle every time you begin to feel a little dry, spiritually, and ask the preacher to put you under the water one more time? No, I don’t think so. I think you immerse yourself in worship, in fellowship, in Bible study and in prayer. I think that whatever else you might say about these ancient spiritual practices they are meant to keep the sponge of your soul saturated with the divine. They are how you remain “in Christ Jesus.” And it may sound too simple, but all of these things are available to you simply by going to church.

            As I was working on this sermon I tried to remember a time when I didn’t go to church, and there has only been one. It was when I went off to prep school at the age of fifteen. I started as a sophomore, having tried and failed to get into that school the first two times. The first Sunday I was there the force of habit got me out of bed and carried me to the church closest to my dormitory: a Baptist church. I’d like to say that I went back the next week, and the week after that, but I didn’t. When my parents asked I said I’d found a good church close by, but I didn’t tell them I’d stopped going. It wasn’t that I meant to; it was almost like I had to. That school was hard, and for someone who had never had to study much before it was a big adjustment. We had classes on Saturday up until noon, and then everyone took the rest of the day off to play, and play hard. Check in on Saturday wasn’t until midnight, and when Sunday morning rolled around everybody slept in, and then went to the dining hall for brunch before settling in to do homework the rest of the day. There was so much homework! It felt almost necessary to fall into the same pattern as everyone else, just to take the break I needed so desperately on Saturday afternoon, and then to get my work done before Monday morning. 

            For two years that’s what I did, but when my mother suggested I apply to college early, I did, and when I got in (to everyone’s surprise, including mine), I went. I was glad to get away from the never-ending workload and the cutthroat competition of prep school. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I went. I learned a lot at that school. I gained a sense of confidence that I might not have found elsewhere. I came away with this feeling that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere.

But I barely made it.

I had this cheap electric alarm clock that would click before it buzzed in the morning—the tiniest click, and then a half-second delay, and then that buzzer telling me it was time to get up and get going again, from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night. I hated that buzzer so much that I developed a new reflex. When I heard that click in the morning, before the buzzer could sound, my hand would shoot out from under the covers and turn off that alarm. 95 percent of the time my hand got to it before the buzzer sounded. 

            That’s how tired of that school I was. And although I made some good friends there and had some good times, my mother knew me well enough to know I wasn’t thriving. That’s why she suggested I apply to college a year early—to a tiny college in a southern state where my uncle was on the faculty. I did, and as I said, I got in and went. And I did well there. I thrived. But it wasn’t until I was working on this sermon last week that I realized the only time in my life I didn’t go to church was when I was in prep school. That changed when I went to college. My older brother, Ed, transferred to my new school and went with me. He was a good role model. He got me up early on Sunday mornings to go to church with him. On Monday nights we went to an on-campus Bible study. As I said, I thrived there, but was it because of that? Was it because I got myself grounded again in the things of God? Did it help me realize that it wasn’t all up to me, that I was part of something bigger than myself? At prep school I was lonelier than I’d ever been before. I suffered from a kind of stress I’d never known. A good psychologist may have said I was clinically depressed. Was some of it, or all of it, because I’d given up going to church? 

            I don’t know, and I don’t really know if that’s what Paul is talking about in this passage, but in verse 5 he tells his readers to set their minds not on the things of the flesh, but on the things of the Spirit, and going to church is a good way to do that. I mean, look at you this morning, both you who are in the room and you who are watching from home. Instead of dreaming up new ways to indulge the flesh you are listening to a sermon. Good for you! I tell people sometimes that to sit in church for an hour on Sunday morning and listen for a word from outside yourself, a word from the Lord, is a wonderful, weekly discipline. It’s a way to unplug from the world around you and re-boot your life.

I wish someone had told me that while I was in prep school. Can you imagine, if I’d gone back to that Baptist church the following Sunday, and the one after that, and the one after that? Can you imagine how that congregation might have looked at that fifteen-year-old boy sitting all by himself on a church pew and taken some pity on him? How they might have loved him, and encouraged him, and occasionally taken him home for Sunday dinner? I mean, it’s what you would do, right? If that had happened for me I think I might be telling you a different story today. I think I might be telling you the story of how, even in that stressful situation, I was able to remain in Christ Jesus by keeping the sponge of my soul soaked in the Spirit of God, and how even then, even there, I was able to find life and peace.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Jon Meacham, “Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn’t Exist?” Time, April 14, 2011 (https://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2065289,00.html).

[ii] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity.(Kindle edition, location 266-270).

Rest For Your Soul

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

July 9, 2023

I can’t begin to tell you the outpouring of Love I have received since it was announced that I was preaching today!  Thank you for loving me so well and thank you to Jim Somerville for trusting me to preach today while he is away at the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Norway.  Yesterday, I even got a message that Alison Lance, one of our students, made her family come home early from vacation so she could be at church today….church – when a teenager wants to be here instead of the beach – you are doing something right!  So thank you for being here and for allowing me to share what God has laid on my heart.

There’s a saying in the South I’m guessing many of you are familiar with…“That’s the pot calling the kettle black”.  Do you remember that one… when one person criticizes someone for a fault they also have.  Like when someone is always late to everything, but they are the first to remind everyone about a meeting and say “Don’t be late”…that’s the pot calling the kettle black.  I have to confess that’s a bit how I felt when I began reading the scriptures passages this week and read in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was calling us to find rest for our souls.  I found myself saying, “Of all people to preach on rest, Lord …am I really the one you want?  Me…who frequently answers emails late at night and doesn’t know how to say no…. You want me to preach on Finding Rest for the soul?!”  It’s a little like the pot calling the kettle black if I stand up here and tell you how to find this perfect rest and peace, when I struggle to do the same.    

            I can identify with Paul words… he knew the right thing to do, but he didn’t do it.  He knew what to stay away from, and yet that was the very thing he often did.  As I hear that in light of Matthew’s gospel, I find myself saying, yep…me too, Paul…I need to rest but I don’t do it.  I don’t need to schedule so many things that clutter a calendar, but I do.  Yet, thankfully, both scriptures come back to the same point…. the only real answer is Jesus.  Perhaps the Lord knew this was exactly what I needed to focus on in my life these past few weeks.   So I come today, to step on my own toes, to share what I’m still learning along the way and to invite you to join me as we dive into this story in pursuit of Rest. 

             Imagine the scene with me: Jesus has just finished teaching his disciples.  They have gone through many towns and cities, preaching the Kingdom of heaven is here, healing the sick, and causing quite a stir.  Peter has not yet named Christ as the Messiah and people are beginning to take note of Jesus in ways that perhaps they hadn’t before.  John the Baptist, who is sitting in prison, sends his followers to Jesus to ask if He is the one to come or if they should wait for another.  “Go and tell John what you observe – the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news” Jesus says.    The crowds gathered must have leaned in a bit closer, both curious, criticizing, and yet longing/needing to hear that good news.  Jesus went on correct their thinking, to curse cities that persisted in evil, and then to thank the Father for giving him true wisdom.  It was then, I imagine his eyes pleaded with the people, his voice fell a little softer, his arms opened to those standing there, and he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Can you imagine it?  I wonder how many scoffed and said, yeah okay – but let me go home and finish dinner because the biscuits are burning and the men will be coming in off their boats.  How many said – that’s great…can you heal me next so I can get back to work and help provide for my family?  Or just maybe…there were some that dropped their plows, dusted their aprons, and sat down to listen a little more.  I wonder if that’s the moment some of them began hear and experience Jesus in a different way.  For an oppressed society under Roman rule, they were weary and taxed.  Their burdens were great and surviving was more important than thriving.  I wonder if this was the moment, some accepted a way that was radically different and yet profoundly simple…a way that led to true rest – not for their feet, but for their soul.

Interestingly, Jesus says the way to find rest for your soul means taking upon you a yoke.  Being yoked is to literally be bound together – to be united, linked, or chained to a common purpose. (Sidenote: It is also where we get the word Yoga…which makes since as it is a physical practice to help people meditate and relax…to release the restrictions and find peace.)

I witnessed a type of yoke a couple weeks ago at Bible School, I noticed two young girls walking down the hallways one day as they were leaving.  They had tied their shoelaces together and were attempting walk down the hall. They wanted to be so close and found such joy being with the other…the only problem was – they both tied the lace from their left shoes.  I’m sure they thought – “ohh, I’ll use my left shoe” and the other one said “Me too – I’ll use my left shoe”…thinking they were on the same page…or foot…but when they started walking down the hallway – one could walk fine, while the other one kept fumbling with her right foot catching the laces between them each time and tripping them both up.  They had the tools, they had the right idea, but the way they yoked themselves together did not lead them to find rest and harmony, but caused them to work harder and endure more missteps than before!  Comical and sweet – yes…productive…not so much!

In the first century agrarian culture of Jesus’ day, they would have understood the full concept of a yoke and known the way you yoke something together matters. 

You may not know there are 3 primary types of yokes used with animals:

  1. a bow yoke – the ones most of us can picture in our minds with two oxen being bound with a wooden collar around their neck or shoulders and a beam between them so that when one pulls or turns, the other will as well.  They are easily adjustable to different animals and the heaviness of their load or burden is lessened because there are two or more working together as a team. 
  2. A head yoke – this fits on the forehead of the beast and secures behind or around the horns.  It typically takes a bit more adjusting and you have to create new ones when the horns grow.  These are also specific to the animal that will wear it as each would be a different size and horn shape but it allowed for each animal to work a bit more independently and had comfort supports under the straps on the head.
  3. Withers yoke – this type would go in-front of an animal’s withers or shoulder blades and were mostly used on zebu cattle that had a large hump or wither at the shoulder making the traditional bow yoke harder to use. 

Now, I could stop there and we could talk of how being yoked was an oppressive system where animals would toil and labor, subservient to their master and yet necessary to complete a task. We could make analogies about how being yoked to Jesus is wonderful and to have him pulling alongside you would surely lessen the burden…but that’s not what the scripture says.  Jesus said His yoke was easy…not that he would be yoked with us.  Did you catch that…he’s asking us to put on the yoke he is Giving…we have to wear it…we have to pick up our cross and follow him.  It’s not that he is taking ½ our troubles away, but it’s that his yoke is easier.  He is still the master – not the other workhorse.  And about that easy yoke…that word EASY in Greek is actually translated as good, helpful, kind or profitable….not just easy.  The yoke Jesus gives us is one that will be good and helpful.  He is providing the tool but he doesn’t take away the work we are called to do – His yoke helps us to do the work better, with better outcomes – thus it’s easier. 

I must admit that’s a switch for me…but it also leads me to think, perhaps he was talking about another type of yoke – one  that people often carried and not animals.  It is called a milkmaid’s yoke or carrying pole.  These are the long single poles that fit over the shoulder of men or women as they would carry pales water, milk, produce, any kind of thing over long distances.  If it was one person carrying the yoke, they would balance the pole over their shoulders with an equal amount of weight in the buckets on both ends.  If two people worked together, they would each take one end of the pole and the weight (or burden) would hang from the middle. 

The yoke of Jesus isn’t meant to confine us like a beast of burden, but perhaps was to say – carry THIS pole where the weight will be evenly distributed, where you won’t feel lopsided or unbalanced.  Come to me and let me rest my yoke on your shoulders so that you aren’t chained with a bow, or your head isn’t straining, or your back withers humped over…come and let me give you a good yoke, a yoke that is kind to you, so that we can walk and talk together as we get the job done. 

And there is one distinct benefit to the milkmaid yoke – It allowed people to go through narrow passages.  If the pole was too wide, you could turn sideways and navigate through small entrances without unloading everything or re-routing to find a larger pass.  Seems to me, Jesus had previously said in Matthew 7, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  Perhaps the yoke of Jesus allows people to follow the narrow road easier. Perhaps the lighter load means quicker steps on a path to fullness of life. 

I like to think of it like a small child learning to bake.  You remember those days when children wanted to make brownies but they were too small to see over the countertop.  They were so small and really couldn’t do it on their own but that didn’t stop the defiant “I do it by myself” that usually accompanied the attempt!  Now parents, we had a choice at that moment…we could say fine – you do it and watch them self destruct…or we could step back, offer the right tools at the right time, and see them make progress as they worked through each step.  In the end, they were so proud of the final outcome and we would eat every bite…regardless if tasted good or bad…and celebrate that accomplishment.  That is how I think God works with us.  In our defiance thinking we can do it all, we lift things too heavy, we take on too much, we try to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders – but Jesus is there saying – here’s a better tool, try this instead, let me help you hold that bowl while you work to scrape it out.  You do it, but I’m here to help provide what you need along the way.  And in the end, he is celebrating every step with us – good or bad – and saying “Well Done”!

Theres a second part to this passage I find interesting.  Amid this talk of work and yokes and burden….Jesus mentions rest twice…and not just propping your feet up at the end of a long day, but rest for your soul.  We live in such a hurried, frantic state that is often characterized by stress and anxiety – and yet Jesus is calling us to find rest that goes much deeper than just relieving the tiredness or getting enough sleep at night.  When your soul is burdened, rest looks different.  Rest can be finally catching a deep breath, a breakthrough, a peace that passes all understanding.  When your soul finds rest, it isn’t about finishing a laundry list of chores and commitments, it’s deeper – less about relief and more about release. 

            At the beginning of this year, I chose a word that I wanted to make a focal point in my life for 2023…Time!  I wanted to make time, to carve out time, to create time, to give time, to find time, and to enjoy time.  I believe that part of understanding Rest is understanding Time.  Jesus often retreated with his disciples to find rest…in a garden, a room, the other side of the lake.  He rested as he savored meals, as he took time to rest with the Father in prayer.  Resting didn’t eliminate the work, it didn’t lessen His tasks, but it helped to restore His soul.   If Jesus could take time to rest when the world was out to crucify Him, surely I can find time to rest today. 

            And I believe that rest may look different for each of us.  This past week, the formation staff took a day and went to Barnes and Nobles for a couple hours and chose a book that we wanted to read – just for fun, to renew us and provide rest from our routines!  Rest for your soul may be time for conversations around the dinner table when everyone is back home.  It may be bedtime prayers and time to tuck in children when you know where they are and they are safe.  Rest may be whispering prayers of thanksgiving as you soak in the sun and take time to listen to the waves crashing on the shoreline that God created.  Rest yesterday for me was a few moments to listen to the thunder, smell the rain, feel the drops as they splattered down.  It may be as simple as sitting by the bedside of a loved one savoring every minute you have together.  Our tasks don’t disappear, but our soul finds respite amid the rush.

Ruth Haley Barton has a new book out called Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest where she explores the idea of Sabbath and rest.  Hear these words and how she describes the link between rest and time.

There have to be times in your life when you move slow,

Times when you walk rather than run, settling into each step…

There have to be times when you stop and gaze admiringly at loved ones,

marveling that they have been given to you for this life…

Times when hugs linger and kisses are real,

When food and drink are savored with gratitude and humility rather than gulped down on your way to something else.

There have to be times when you read for the sheer pleasure of it, marveling at

the beauty of the words and the endless creativity in putting them together…

Times when you settle into the comforts of home and become human once again.

There have to be times when you light a candle and find the tender place inside

you that loves or sorrows or sings and you pray from that place,

Times when you let yourself feel, when you allow the tears to come rather than

blinking them back because you don’t have time to cry.

There have to be times to sink into the soft body of yourself, and love what you

love simply because love itself is a grace…

Times when you sit with gratitude for the good gifts of your life that get lost and

forgotten in the rush of things…

Times to celebrate and play

To roll down hills

To splash in water or make leaf piles

To spread paint of paper or walls or each other.

There have to be times to sit and wait for the fullness of God that replenishes

body, mind, and soul –

If you can even stand to be so full.

There has to be time for the fullness of time

or time is meaningless.

The wisdom of Jesus is that he didn’t tell us to quit doing things…he told us to do things while we remain connected to Him.  He began by saying “Come to me”.  It all starts with our willingness to go towards the Savior.  It’s not always easy, the path is not wide, but the result is peace within the arms of God now…and forever!  Friends, I don’t have this all figured out…it’s still a work in progress!– but I invite you to join me on the journey…Jesus is offering a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light, and rest for your soul.  Will you say yes? 

Let’s pray: Father – in a world where the activities and schedules and calendars abound, may we find time to rest our souls.  It is easy to become weary but we pray that when the journey seems long and hard, we may find your companionship to be most meaningful.  Grant us now your wisdom and your yolk, a light burden, and time to rest in your love.  In the name of Jesus, Amen.

“Hide and Seek”

Do you remember playing hide and seek. It was always one of those games you could play with no equipment and in almost any place. You could play with just two people if you wanted. One person had to be It and everyone else hid. But you always seemed to have Those kids. You know what I mean. You have that one kid who picks the absolute hardest place to hide, like in the trunk of a moving car, determined no one will find them. And then you have the kid who hides behind a small bush with half their body exposed thinking no one will find them. All these hide and seek memories reminded me of a book called Hide and Seek. I want to read an exerpt.

“Come boys, what shall we do? Let’s play hide and seek,” suggested Fred. “Oh yes! That will be fun for all of us. Who will shut his eyes? Fred, will you shut your eyes?” asked Roy. “Yes, I’ll shut my eyes while you all go and hide,” replied Fred. Then Fred stood by the tree and shut his eyes, and the other boys ran off to hide. Pretty soon Fred shouted, “Boys, are you all hidden? Well, here I go. One, two, three, here I come!” Fred started to look for the hidden boys. He spotted Andrew hiding in a box. “Ha! I found you, Andrew. You are in that box!” shouted Fred.

Obviously, Andrew was one of “those” kids.

In our Scripture this morning, Abraham is called upon by God to accept a very difficult task. In verse one, God simply calls Abraham and Abraham responds, “Here I Am”. He did not try to hide or run when God called. He just turned and said, “Here I Am”.  God then goes on to lay out a task so difficult, so un-thinkable, asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son as an offering to God. From what we read, Abraham does not argue with God, try to resist in any way, or even question God’s command. He simply obeys.

Who knows what is going through his mind. If it had been me I would have reminded God that this was the son through whom many descendants were supposed to emerge according to his earlier promise. Kind of hard to accomplish if I do what you are asking. But Abraham, he gathered the materials needed, called on his son to go with him to perform a sacrifice, and set out to the place God had shown him. Issac, his son, asked him where was the ram they were going to sacrifice and Abraham simply replied, God will provide. It soon occurred to Issac that God did indeed provide and he was the provision. But you notice in the text that Issac did not question, did not hide, did not fight his father, but simply obeyed. His words were simply, “Here I am”. And then, after Abraham had tied up Issac and placed him on the altar he had made and was ready to kill him out of obedience to God, the angel of the Lord shouted Abraham’s name and Abraham again responded “Here I Am”, though probably not as calmly as the first time. The angel told Abraham that God honored his obedience and therefore he would not have to sacrifice his son but could instead use the ram that had suddenly appeared in a tangle of bushes nearby. Both Abraham, and certainly Issac, were relieved at this change of direction but you have to honor their response to God’s call… “Here I Am”.

Throughout the Old Testament God calls people like Moses, Jacob, Samuel, David and others and their response is the Hebrew word “hinnay-knee” or “here I am”. Even in the NT, God calls Mary to be the mother of Jesus and her response is, “Here I Am”, what is it you want me to do? And the greatest responder to a difficult task was Jesus himself when he said in the Garden of Gethsemane, facing great suffering and death, and where he could have said, No to God, responded with the words, “not my will but yours be done” or in other words, “Here I am”

‘Here I am’ denotes a physical presence, it says I am here just as I am, nothing false or fake, open to the present situation. “Here I am” is the attitude of the servant, the willing person. Available…reporting for duty… your word is my command…at your service…how may I serve you today?

What is the opposite of “here I am?” Let’s look again in Genesis to the very first call of God in the Garden of Eden where God calls out for Adam and Eve. They have sinned against God by disobeying God and as God calls for them they try to hide from Him. Kind of a Biblical hide-and-seek. There was no “here I am” but instead, there was a “I really hope He can’t find me”. Finally, when they do emerge from their misguided hiding place, they are ashamed for what they have done and have to confess.

Another example of running from God’s call is Jonah, God called Jonah to go to the people of Nineveh and tell them about God and His love so that they might repent and come to know him. But Jonah didn’t think they deserved God’s presence. He was prejudiced against the people of Nineveh so he refused God’s calling and ran from it. For those of you not familiar with the story, Jonah, despite his efforts of evasion, finally gave in to the call and went to Nineveh, though he was still not happy about it. God’s purpose was fulfilled, Nineveh responded positively, and Jonah left mad and disgruntled. Both his initial reaction and his ending response to God’s calling reflected a lack of faith in God and a love for people.

Even Moses tried to weasel out of God’s calling by offering multiple excuses as to why He could not fulfill God’s calling of leading the Israelite people out of slavery.

I wonder how often we play hide-and-seek from God’s calling. How often do we believe we have good reasons which clear us from the responsibility of that calling? How often do we avoid God’s call by offering excuses as to why we are not the one who should be called, but that maybe it’s better for someone else to do so.

In contrast to these examples, of course, is Abraham, who simply responds, “Here I Am”, “How may I serve you” “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”.

Some people believe that only ministers are called, however, each of us has a calling, maybe several of them. You see, each day God calls us to hear his voice and respond appropriately. His call may be one to just listen for direction in response to a problem, it may be one to go to someone who is in need, it may be one to address a larger problem that maybe we cannot resolve but we need to pay attention to and do our small part.

The question is do we respond to that call with a “here I am” or do we respond as Adam and Eve, Jonah, and Moses did when called, by hiding behind our fears, our schedules, our prejudices, our complacency, our selfishness, or our excuses. Oh, we could come up with hundreds of excuses to hide behind and most of us are good at it, but the fact is, when God lays a call upon us, He does so for a reason.  Maybe, we are the one with resources, or influence, or the opportunity. Maybe the call is for our benefit and not just the supposed benefactor of our positive action.

Story of the miraculous touchdown pass to Dwight during the reign of doom for the luckless green team of the Siler City little league football. Well, let’s look at that a little more closely. When Dwight yelled, “Here I am”, there were three things important to note.

First of all, Dwight had to be willing to accept the task. He had to be willing to play the game and participate in the task he was given. When God calls us, He only ask that we show up. He doesn’t ask anything other than a willingness to participate.


Second, Dwight had to be where he was supposed to be. When he said, Here I am, he had to be where he needed to be. If he had been behind me or over on the bench, or had let a defender keep him covered, he wouldn’t have been much use. With God, to receive His power and presence we must be in a right relationship with the Lord. We cannot let any obstacles, such as unforgiven sin, or unresolved spiritual issues, prevent us from being where God needs us to be mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.

Finally, Dwight had to be willing to complete the task. If he had caught the pass and then just laid down or had run the wrong way, the whole touchdown would have never happened. He had to be willing to turn and run for the goal. With God, once we have said “Here I am” and we have received the call, then we must be willing to run with it. The way before us might be difficult, it might be scary, it might even be fraught with numerous obstacles, but if it is God’s intention for us to complete the call, whatever that call may be, He will provide a way.

When our response to God is “Here I Am”, we display a confidence and faith in the presence and power of God. Whether we are

Facing a spiritual fight, “Here I Am, bring it on”

Facing a crisis, “Here I Am”

Facing a time of indecision, “Here I Am”

Feeling lost or hopeless, “Here I Am”

Feeling scared out of your wits, “Here I Am”

Or facing a call to serve God or others, “Here I Am”

When in Romans: Buried with Christ

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

            I ended up preaching a different sermon last week than the one I had planned to preach. I had planned to preach the second sermon in this series called “When in Romans.” I was going to tell you that Romans 5 begins with the word therefore in the same way some resolutions end with that word. Have you heard them? “Whereas John has been employed by our firm for forty years, and whereas he always showed up for work, and whereas he is now retiring, therefore be it resolved that he is a jolly good fellow”? The first four chapters of Romans read sort of like that—like the whereases in one of those resolutions. Paul might say, “Whereas we are a bunch of miserable sinners who deserve nothing better than death, and whereas we needed someone to die for us in order to make us right with God, and whereas Jesus was willing to do that for us and save us from our sins, therefore (and this is what it actually says in Romans 5:1), “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

            In the sermon I didn’t preach last week I said this is what Paul may have been working toward his entire life—peace with God—and the good news is that he finally found a way to get there: by being justified by grace through faith. I said, “This was Paul’s gospel, and he preached it wherever he went, but please notice that it’s Paul’s Gospel, and not Matthew’s, Mark’s, or Luke’s” And that reminded me of a sermon I shared with a group of Baptist pastors shortly after I came to Richmond. It was called, “Which Gospel Shall I Preach?” and it started like this:

            ———————–

            In my study at church there is a framed certificate dated August 5th, 1984.  It’s a license to preach the Gospel, and I remember how excited I was when I got it.  I could just picture myself standing to preach on street corners, in shopping malls, even on the front steps of public schools, daring anybody to stop me. If they did I was going to hold up that certificate and say, “You can’t stop me. I’ve got a license!” All these years later they still haven’t stopped me, but in those years I’ve done some thinking about what it means to preach “the gospel” and lately I’ve been asking myself which gospel I should preach. 

According to the late Tim Keller, evangelicals agreed on “the simple gospel” a generation ago, and this was it: 1) God made you and wants to have a relationship with you, but 2) your sin separates you from God. 3) Jesus took the punishment your sins deserved, so that 4) if you repent from your sins and trust in him for your salvation, you will be forgiven, justified, and accepted freely by grace, and indwelt with his Spirit until you die and go to heaven.  I would guess that, in one form or another, that’s the gospel you received and the gospel you believed.  But Keller, who was the pastor of the largest Protestant church in Manhattan, had at least two criticisms of this simple formulation.  One was that it is too individualistic, “that Christ’s salvation is not so much to bring individual happiness as to bring peace, justice, and a new creation.”  The second was that “there is no one ‘simple gospel’ because ‘everything is contextual’ and the Bible itself contains many gospel presentations.”[i]

It’s that second thing I want to talk about (I said), the idea that “the Bible itself contains many gospel presentations.” 

Even before someone pointed me toward that article by Tim Keller called “The Gospel in All Its Forms” I had been thinking about how the good news that John preaches seems fundamentally different from the good news that Matthew, Mark, and Luke preach.  In John’s Gospel there is a lot of talk about believing in Jesus.  The miracles he does are called “signs” and they are meant to point people toward faith.  We call John 3:16 the “gospel in a nutshell” and this is what it says: that “God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (KJV).  Right at the end of the Gospel John tells us that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book, but these things are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name” (John 20:30-31, NRSV).

It’s good news, isn’t it?

But if you turn back a few pages to the Gospel of Mark you find a different emphasis.  Mark’s Jesus, after he has been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, makes his way to Galilee where he begins to say, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the gospel!”  He uses that word in its generic sense.  The gospel is “good news,” and the good news he wants to share is that God’s Kingdom has come near.  But in this Gospel (and also in Matthew and Luke) it becomes clear that for Jesus the Kingdom is not meant to be “pie in the sky, by and by, but something sound, on the ground, while we’re still around.”[ii]  When he teaches his disciples to pray he teaches them to pray that God’s Kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It is the focus of his mission. I think that’s why you have all those healing stories in these gospels, and those scenes where people who were formerly deaf, dumb, blind and lame are now hearing, talking, seeing, walking. This is how it will be when the Kingdom comes on earth. And the message of the coming Kingdom is the “good news” of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are sometimes called the “Synoptic Gospels”—syn as in synonym and optic as in optical—because they can be “seen together,” because their message is so much the same.

But turn forward a few pages to Paul’s letter to the Romans and you will find a different gospel altogether. Paul seldom refers to the Kingdom of God. He rarely mentions heaven or everlasting life. The good news for him is about being set free from the Law, about being saved by grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. It was good news for Martin Luther, who became a monk as a way of trying to earn his salvation before learning that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone. It was good news for John Wesley, who after years of wondering if he was really a Christian found his heart “strangely warmed” when he heard someone preach God’s grace from the book of Romans. It’s good news for any of us who have tried to be good enough to get into heaven because that just won’t work. We can never be good enough. But thanks be to God, Paul would say, that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” That’s good news, isn’t it? It’s Paul’s version of the good news.

——————–

But as I asked those Baptist pastors fifteen years ago, when I step up to the pulpit on Sunday morning which of these three Gospels shall I preach?  The Johannine Gospel, which is all about believing in Jesus so that you might have everlasting life?  The Synoptic Gospel, which is all about the good news of God’s coming Kingdom?  Or the Pauline Gospel, which is all about being saved by grace through faith, and not by keeping the law? These are three very different messages, with three very different audiences, but sometimes—just sometimes—they overlap.

For example: let’s imagine that you’ve been trying to find peace with God your entire life. You hear Paul’s message of justification by grace through faith. You believe it, you come down the aisle to profess your faith and present yourself as a candidate for baptism and on a Sunday morning a few weeks later, in front of God and everybody, you go down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and come up clean, with your sins forgiven. For the rest of that day you enjoy a kind of peace you have never felt before. But that night, when you’re home alone, the old temptations return, and before you know it you’ve done it again, you’ve sinned! And now what? If you’re like some people you enter into a lifelong struggle with sin, that often leaves you feeling like a miserable failure, but if you’re like some of the people Paul was writing to you believe that God’s grace is greater than all your sin, and begin to sin with abandon.

In Romans 6, Paul writes to both kinds of people, beginning with that second group. “What then,” he says, “should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” And then he uses a Greek expression that means, almost literally, “Hell, no! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” But then, picking up on that same line of reasoning, he turns to the second group and says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” And Paul is just getting started. Ten times in this passage he uses the word Thanatos, meaning “death.” Two more times he uses the word nekros, meaning “dead.” He wants us to understand that our old sin-loving self was drowned in the waters of baptism and therefore no longer has any power over us. If he could sum it up he might say, “The secret of life—this new life in Christ—is death!”

And this is where the Pauline gospel begins to overlap with the Synoptic gospel, this is where Paul begins to sound like Jesus, which almost never happens. Paul and Jesus come from two different places, they have two different agendas, but right at the end of today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It almost sounds as if he’s saying, “The secret of life…is death.” But before you start tweeting that out to your friends or posting it on Facebook let me give you some backstory. Jesus was walking with his disciples on the road near Caesarea Philippi, way up on the slopes of Mount Hermon. He asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” and they told him, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” And from that moment Jesus began to tell them that he was going to suffer and die. Peter couldn’t believe it. He said, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” But Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not thinking the things of God, but of men.”

I was talking with a trauma nurse last week who told me that in her experience anxiety about death is one of the biggest problems we humans face. She put me onto a book called Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, by a psychotherapist named Irvin Yalom. He begins by writing, “Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die.” Yalom appeals to Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, who practiced “medical philosophy” and insisted that just as the doctor treats the body, the philosopher must treat the soul. “In his view there was only one proper goal of philosophy,” Yalom writes: “to alleviate human misery. And the root cause of misery? Epicurus believed it to be our omnipresent fear of death.”[iii]

Which is why what Jesus says to his disciples is so brilliant. Up there on the road near Caesarea Philippi, with all its statues and shrines to the Greek gods, he said, “If any of you want to come after me you need to deny the self, take up the cross, and follow me.” In other words, you need to volunteer to die, because once you do that, once you confront your fear of death head on—once you accept it and even embrace it—death will no longer have any power over you, the fear of death will no longer make you miserable. You can stop thinking the things of men, as Peter was, and start thinking the things of God.

In his own way that’s what Paul says. He’s not talking about the fear of death so much as the love of sin but in both cases something needs to be confronted, something needs to be denied. Jesus told his disciples to deny the self, Paul might tell us to deny our sin-loving selves, but each of them would agree that there is something in us—some trembling, anxious, greedy, needy thing—that has to die. I remember talking to Buddy Hamilton years ago, Buddy, who even then had lived more years than I ever will. He said, “Don’t you think our biggest problem is inordinate self-concern?” Yes. Yes I do, Buddy. And I think Jesus, and Paul, and Epicurus would agree with you. We walk around carrying our fragile egos as if they were soap bubbles, afraid that someone might pop them. “Well,” Jesus might say. “Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you pop that silly soap bubble so you can stop worrying about it?” “Yes,” Paul might say, “why don’t you come down the aisle of the church and ask the preacher to baptize you. Why don’t you drown that sinful self once and for all?” “Yes,” Epicurus might say, “why don’t you confront your fear of death head on? Why don’t you learn to accept it and embrace it?”

There are at least three different presentations of the gospel in the New Testament. They are each very different, with different messages. But on this day Paul and Jesus and maybe even Epicurus would agree that the way to find your life is to lose it.

The sooner the better.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Tim Keller, “The Gospel in All Its Forms,” Leadership (Spring 2008).

[ii] I’ve heard this in an African American worship service, and it seemed to be something everyone had heard before, and often.

[iii] From chapter 1 of the Kindle edition of Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, by Irvin D. Yalom (Jossey-Bass, 2008, 2009).

When in Romans: Peace with God (SBC response sermon)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

            For most of last week I was working on an answer to the question of how we can have peace with God. That’s what Paul seems to want to talk about in today’s Epistle lesson, and that’s what I was planning to preach about this morning. I was going to say that we have peace with God when we realize that we will never be justified by being good enough, but only by trusting the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. But toward the end of last week people began to ask me a different question. Through text messages, emails, and phone calls they were asking not how do we have peace with God, but is this church a Southern Baptist church? And I think you know the reason for that.

            At last week’s annual meeting the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed its position that no woman can be the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church. But then it went beyond that and voted to amend its constitution so that no church that had a female pastor of any kind, even if she were a pastor to children, could be part of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The title of pastor is reserved for men alone,” they said. Which is why people were asking the question. They know Richmond’s First Baptist Church has female pastors, and has for years. So far we haven’t had a female senior pastor, but we have a female senior associate pastor, and we have a female associate pastor, and we have a number of other women who serve as ministers and deacons in our church. The people who have been asking this question are wondering if, when the SBC ratifies the amendment to its constitution next year, this church will be kicked out. They want to know: “Is this an SBC church?” Let me see if I can answer that question.

            What I usually say is that Richmond’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1780—65 years before the Southern Baptist Convention even came into existence. But I also say that through the years we have partnered with whatever denominational entity or agency could help us fulfill our mission, and for many years the SBC was a good partner. When I became a Baptist in 1981 I joined a Southern Baptist church. I learned about the emphasis on missions and evangelism that has defined the denomination from the beginning. I learned the names Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, two famous (female) Southern Baptist missionaries. I learned about the Cooperative Program, the unified giving plan that made it possible for me to go to seminary free of charge—a gift I’m still grateful for. But I also learned that being Baptist means freedom.

When I talk about this in our newcomers’ class I often refer to Walter Shurden’s little book, Four Fragile Freedoms, and then I talk about our individual freedom, sometimes referred to as soul competency. I say, “In some churches they baptize infants, but we Baptists like to wait until you are old enough to make up your own mind about Jesus. In a Baptist church nobody carries you down the aisle, and nobody pushes you down the aisle. You make up your own mind.” Next I talk about Bible freedom. I say, “Some churches don’t think the people in the pews should be reading the Bible; they think that should be left up to the priests. But we believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit every Baptist can read and interpret the Bible with understanding. We encourage it, and don’t think anyone should stand between a Baptist and her Bible.” Next I talk about church freedom, often referred to as local church autonomy. I tell them, “Other churches have bishops and popes, but we don’t. We have a congregational form of government. We get to decide for ourselves what our mission and ministry will be, and we are free to ordain whomever we perceive to be gifted for ministry, male or female.” Finally I talk about religious freedom, based on the principle of a free church in a free state. “This is how Baptists got their start,” I say. “They didn’t like the Church of England telling them what to do. So they came to this country seeking religious liberty and found it. They built a wall of separation between church and state. We are at our Baptist best when we don’t tell the government what to do, and don’t let it tell us what to do.” James Dunn, who for years served as the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, put it another way. He said, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to do!” That spirit is deeply ingrained in Baptists, so when the Southern Baptist Convention tells us we can’t have female pastors we feel our spines stiffen. We wonder, “Who are you to tell us what to do?” And people who don’t even know us begin to ask, “Is your church a Southern Baptist church?”

Let me tell you a story. Back in the mid-1980’s the Southern Baptist Convention was coming apart at the seams. The denomination was embroiled in a controversy some called a “conservative resurgence” and others called a “fundamentalist takeover.” At stake, some said, was the Bible itself, which led them to brand an otherwise ugly denominational disagreement as a “battle for the Bible.” But not everybody wanted a fight. Some were praying for peace. And in the middle of that controversy a so-called Peace Committee was formed with representation by some of the most prominent personalities on either side. Dr. Jim Flamming, Pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, was appointed to the Peace Committee and he did his very best to be a peacemaker, but as Lynn Turner remembers he came home from one of those meetings and told the church that those people had no interest in peace. He said, “This is a fight going on among preachers and we don’t need to have any part of it. Instead of saying that we are a liberal church or a fundamentalist church or a moderate church or a conservative church, let’s just say that we are the church of Jesus Christ,” which may be another way of saying, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell us what to do!” And when the Southern Baptist Convention literally split apart in 1991, with thousands of former members founding the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Dr. Flamming begged the church not to choose, not to split this church down the middle, but to remain the church of Jesus Christ and let those who wanted to support the SBC send their mission dollars there, and those who wanted to support the CBF send their mission dollars there, and for all those years since then—more than thirty years now—that’s the way we’ve done it.

So, are we a Southern Baptist church? When I came to First Baptist fifteen years ago I was told, “No. We do not formally affiliate with either the Southern Baptist Convention or the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Instead we support missionaries, and church members are free (there’s that word again) to support SBC missionaries, CBF missionaries, or both.” That may explain why our church didn’t show up on a blog post by Mike Law, an SBC pastor in Northern Virginia who started searching through the websites of every church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, looking to see if they had any women on their staff, and checking to see if any of those women had the title “Pastor.” I looked through the entire post to see if our church was listed, and it wasn’t, but I saw the faces of women I admire and respect, pastors and associate pastors who have done great good in their churches, posted on this blog as if it were the 17th century and this were a witch hunt. It made me mad. Mike Law believes these women are a threat to the Southern Baptist Convention. He believes they pollute the denomination’s doctrinal purity. He believes the role of pastor can only be filled by a man.

I disagree.

I disagree on biblical grounds. I remember back in 1984 the Southern Baptist Convention said that women could not be pastors because Eve was the first to sin. I had just started seminary, but I knew that Eve at least protested when the serpent invited her to eat the forbidden fruit. Adam didn’t. Eve handed it to him and he bit right in. The convention quoted the writings of Paul at some length, which is why many women still don’t get along with him, but remember that Paul was writing in the first century, when women were considered second-class citizens and the property of their husbands and fathers. When Paul (or someone writing in his name) said, “I forbid a woman to teach a man” (1 Tim. 2:12)[i] it was because women were not allowed to study in those days, and you wouldn’t want an uneducated woman trying to teach. That’s not true in the twenty-first century. Women can study right along with the men, in fact, many seminaries have more female than male students, and many professors will tell you that their female students are their best and brightest. And when Paul said, “Women should keep silence in church” (1 Cor. 14:34), I believe it’s because women had always been relegated to the balcony or the back of the room in the synagogue, where they may have whispered and swapped recipes and passed babies back and forth. “But keep silence in church,” Paul said, and he may have meant, “because this is for you, too.” Isn’t he the one who said, “For there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28)?

In Romans 16 Paul sends his regards to Phoebe, who was a female deacon. He had great respect for Priscilla, who was a powerful preacher. He mentions with gratitude those women who were his partners in the gospel. He advised women to keep their heads covered when they “prophesied” (a New Testament word for preaching). You may remember from the Book of Acts that Philip had four daughters who prophesied, or from the Day of Pentecost that God poured out his spirit on all flesh, both men and women, or from the Gospels that the women who followed Jesus were the last at the cross and the first at the tomb, or from the Easter story that if it hadn’t been for Mary Magdalene we might never have known that Christ had risen. You don’t need me to tell you these things. Take women out of the Bible and there’s not much left. Take women out of the church and the roof would collapse.

And that’s my other argument. I disagree with those who say the role of pastor can only be filled by a man on biblical grounds, but I also disagree on the grounds of experience. I posted Lynn Turner’s picture on Facebook on Friday and said something like, “Has this woman ever been a pastor to you?” The testimonies came flooding in, in fact they are still flooding in, from people who have known and loved Lynn for years and who have been blessed by her ministry. Yesterday I posted a picture of Allison Collier and said, “Allison will offer the pastoral prayer in worship on Sunday morning. Do you know why? Because she’s a pastor.” And once again the testimonies came flooding in. Meredith Stone, Executive Director of Baptist Women in Ministry, said that if the SBC constitution is amended some churches may decide to change the titles of their female pastors just so they can stay in the Convention. Well, here’s what I say: you can change Lynn Turner’s title. You can call her whatever you like (and some people have). But she is now, and will always be, a pastor. That goes for the other women on our staff and for all those women I have worked with through the years who were gifted and called by God.

Why is the Southern Baptist Convention doing this? Why do they feel the need to put women in their place, once again? I have my opinions, but at this point that’s all they are. What I really want you to hear is this: that because of the cherished Baptist principle of local church autonomy, even if we were a Southern Baptist church, the Convention could not tell us what to do. They could kick us out, but they could not shut us up, and they could not keep us from being who we are. As the Apostle Paul might say, “Since we are justified by grace through faith, we have peace with God.” And he said that as someone who had been kicked out of better places than the Southern Baptist Convention. Paul had peace. In an earlier draft of this sermon I pictured him standing waist-deep in the waters of baptism, like Jesus, looking up toward heaven as a dove fluttered down and a voice said, “This is my beloved child.” If you’ve had that experience, if you know you are God’s beloved, then there’s not much that can touch you. I pray that for all those Baptist women in ministry out there—and in here—that they would know they are God’s beloved, and that they would not let the actions of a group of mostly old, white men get them down.

Standing waist-deep in the grace of God Paul wrote: “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” “Hope does not disappoint us,” Paul said. We have the hope of sharing the glory of God. And even if we have to go through hell to get there,

We will.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] The Letter of First Timothy is not considered one of the undisputed Pauline letters, meaning it may not have been Paul who said this at all.

When in Romans: Reckoned Righteous

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.

            You may not be aware of this this, but when I am planning my preaching for the year I try to think about how to provide you with a balanced biblical diet. I want to make sure that you get generous helpings from the Gospels, but also some tasty side dishes from the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Psalms. We’ve just finished up a series from the Gospels; before that was a series from the Old Testament; every Sunday we hear from the Psalms; so maybe it’s time for the Epistles, and some of you might say it’s past time. You love Paul almost as much as you love Jesus. Well, get ready, because today we begin a summer sermon series called “When in Romans,” and we will be in Romans from now until September 17.

            But I don’t want to bore you with expository preaching: that is, I don’t want to simply go through the letter verse-by-verse. I want to see if we can get a glimpse of the big picture this summer, as if we were visiting first-century Rome and trying to understand its language, customs, and culture. And I want us to get to know Paul in ways we never have before. I want us to think about what could possibly persuade a Jewish rabbi to preach the Christian gospel in a pagan culture.

            Maybe that’s where we should begin.

            You know some of Paul’s story. In Philippians 3 he writes that he was, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6). That line about being a persecutor of the church takes us to the end of Acts, chapter 7, where we learn that while Stephen was being stoned “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Paul’s Hebrew name). Luke tells us that a severe persecution against the church broke out that same day, and in the next chapter he tells us that Saul was “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1-3).

            But something happened, right? In Acts 9 we read about Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he intended to round up any followers of Jesus and bring them bound to Jerusalem, when suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It was the voice of the risen Jesus, who told him to get up and go into the city where he would be told what to do. And then Jesus told a disciple named Ananias, who lived in Damascus, to go to Saul, to lay hands on him that he might regain his sight, to baptize him so that he might receive the Holy Spirit, and then to tell him that he had been chosen as an apostle to the Gentiles.

            Let’s pause there for a moment to appreciate what a life-altering experience this was. Paul, as he tells us in Philippians 3, was a Pharisee; he had voluntarily separated himself from anything that was not kosher; he was as Jewish as a Jew could be. He had trained to be a rabbi at the feet of the famous Gamaliel. As to “righteousness under the law” he considered himself blameless, meaning that to the best of his knowledge he had kept all the commandments. He was a Jew among Jews, and according to the Law he was to have nothing to do with Gentiles. They were the uncircumcised, sometimes called “dogs,” who were not counted among God’s chosen people. And yet here was Saul, blinded by his encounter with the risen Christ, sitting in the home of a man named Judas, eating and drinking nothing for three days, while waiting for someone to come to him with a message. And when Ananias came the message was this: “Yes, Jesus is Lord, and the Lord wants you to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.”

            There are two words for repentance in the Bible: one means to turn around and the other means to change your mind. Saul had to do both. First, he had to change his mind about Jesus. He had thought that he was just a troublemaker: a poor carpenter from Galilee claiming to be somebody, maybe even the Messiah. Saul thought he was doing God a favor by keeping people from following this pretender. But then he received a visit from Jesus himself and it changed his life. The scales fell from his eyes. He saw the risen Lord and began to proclaim him in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God!” Saul repented in that way: he changed his mind about Jesus. But he also repented in the other way: he turned himself around. I don’t know that there has ever been such a complete turnaround, from persecuting the church of Jesus Christ to proclaiming him as Lord and Savior, and not only to his fellow Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

            I want you to think about that for a minute. Suppose you were the rabbi of a local synagogue and you became convinced that God wanted you to let the Gentiles in. What would you do? What would you say? And not only what would you say to them—to the Gentiles—but what would you say to your fellow Jews, especially the members of your governing board? How would you answer their protests that the Gentiles were not among God’s chosen people? See, I believe there is a way to read the Bible that excludes, and if you are looking for a reason to exclude the Gentiles you can find it, but I also believe there is a way to read the Bible that includes, and if you are looking for a reason to include the Gentiles you can find it. I think that’s what Saul spent the next few years of his life doing: poring over the pages of Scripture to see if he could find any way that Jesus could be the Messiah, and then searching through the pages of Scripture to see if he could find any reason for including the Gentiles. He had to have some answers, not only for his opponents, but for himself.

            I believe he found them, and then I believe he spent some time thinking about how to make his arguments compelling and how to make his preaching persuasive. In the Book of Acts Luke suggests that whenever Paul came to a new town on his missionary journeys he would go first to the synagogue and try to convince the Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah they had been waiting for. But after they kicked him out he would go to the Gentiles with a different message. Because the Gentiles weren’t waiting for the Messiah. They couldn’t care less about that. Paul had to come to them with something they would care about and so he came to them with a message of salvation. I can almost see him out there on the street in front of the synagogue, still brushing the dirt from his clothes, asking the Gentiles passing by, “Do you want to be saved?” “From what?” they might ask. “From this!” Paul would say, meaning the entire pagan world.

            Because I’ve been reading up on the Roman Empire in the first century, and although there is a lot to be said for it in terms of civilization, there is also a lot to be said for it in terms of moral depravity. The Emperor Caligula comes to mind. He took the throne when he was only 23 years old, and is said have considered himself a god, who sometimes reminded others that he had the right to do “anything to anybody.” And he did. He turned murder into a sport, attacking people at random.[i] He slept with other men’s wives, including the wife of a senator. He spent enormous amounts of the people’s money on his personal building projects. Beyond that he had an insatiable sexual appetite for both men and women and is said to have turned the palace into a “brothel” where drunken orgies went on night after night.

Caligula was no longer emperor when Paul wrote Romans, but his decadence had become the stuff of legend. I think it may have been Caligula and his court that Paul had in mind when he wrote, in Romans 1: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves…. Their females exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,and in the same way also the males, giving up natural intercourse with females, were consumed with their passionate desires for one another…and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” Paul may have been thinking of Caligula himself, who was assassinated four short years after he began to reign.

I can almost picture Paul inside the synagogue, pointing out the depravity of the Gentile world just outside the doors, whipping those faithful Jews into a frenzy of self-righteousness before saying, “But you are without excuse, whoever you are, for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (Romans 2:1). A little further down in chapter 2 he writes: “If you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what really matters because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, who teach others, will you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by your transgression of the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you’” (Rom. 2:17-24).

What Paul is doing here, rhetorically, is genius. He’s getting the righteous people all lathered up about the unrighteous before telling them that they are just as bad as they are. On the one hand here are the Gentiles, frolicking in an ocean of filth, but on the other hand here are the Jews, trying to swim across that same ocean by keeping the law. What Paul is saying is that neither group is going to make it. Some of the Jews might swim farther than others; Paul might have swum farther than any of them; but the ocean is big, and not even the most righteous Jew can make it across. Along with the Gentiles they are “sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.” When along comes Jesus, in a boat, to pluck them out of the water—Jew and Gentile alike! That’s Paul’s message. It’s not complicated. But he has as much trouble getting the Jews to accept it as the Gentiles. So, in today’s passage he appeals to Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, and if you thought his reasoning was genius before, just wait.

He begins: “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” And that needs a little more explanation. For Paul the word righteousness was one of the most important words in the dictionary. It’s the Greek word dikaiosune, and for him it means something like “the right-making power of God.” When Paul talks about the “righteousness of faith,” he is talking about the righteousness that is ours not because we keep the law, but because we believe God has the power to make us right. And he uses Abraham as an example. Think about it: Abraham lived centuries before Moses, before the covenant at Mount Sinai, before the Law. He couldn’t have been justified by keeping the Law; it hadn’t been given yet. And get this: Abraham wasn’t even a Jew. He hadn’t been circumcised. That command hadn’t been given. So, here’s this person who isn’t a Jew, isn’t a Christian, hasn’t been circumcised, hasn’t been baptized. He has no claim on salvation, and yet God tells this wandering Aramean, who is nearly a hundred years old, that he’s going to be the father of a great nation, that his descendants are going to be like the stars in the sky, like the sands of the sea, and Abraham believes him. When he does God says, “That’s the kind of faith I’m looking for! That’s the kind of faith I can build my Kingdom on!” And in that moment God reckoned him righteous: a word from the marketplace that meant something like “paid in full.”

“So,” Paul concludes, “our righteousness doesn’t depend on keeping the Law, as much as we Jews like to think it does. But that’s probably a good thing. If it did, none of us could be saved. No, our righteousness depends on faith, the kind of faith that Abraham had. If God could save him, then God can save us, God can save anyone. Unlike Caligula, God really can do “anything he wants to anybody he wants,” and what he wants to do, apparently, is save us from a corrupt world, bring us into his household, make us members of his family, call us his beloved children. What is our role in all this? Simply to believe, as Abraham did, that God can do it.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] https://www.thecollector.com/caligula/

Grace, Love, and Communion

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

            I enjoyed the Easter Season sermon series, and I hope you did, too. It was fascinating to think about what Mary, and Thomas, and John might remember about Jesus, and almost fun to step into their shoes for a few minutes and share their memories. But it was also limiting, because in those sermons I wasn’t able to share a single current event or contemporary illustration. Can you imagine how many times I thought about a story that would be perfect, but then realized that none of those characters would have known about it, because it hadn’t happened yet? So, I’m almost glad to be preaching a “regular” sermon today, you know: a long, dull, boring sermon. Except that it’s Trinity Sunday! The only Sunday on the Christian calendar devoted to a doctrine! And what could be more exciting than a twenty-minute treatise on a complicated theological concept?  I’m hoping you will stay awake for it, because I believe I have something to say.

            Let me begin with a reminder that the doctrine of the Trinity is an exclusively Christian doctrine, and then let me take a few minutes to talk about that word: Christian. Do you know there are people out there who are not in here because they don’t like Christians, because they don’t want to have anything to do with them? That’s shocking, right? Because in my experience Christians are some of the gentlest, kindest, and most generous people in the world. I work with them every day. I go home to them every night. But I’ve also met some of the other kind, and maybe you have, too. Some of those people out there have met some of the other kind, and in many cases that’s all it took for them to decide we were all like that and to promise themselves that they would stay far away from Christian people and the places they gather, places like this.

            I’ve quoted from it before, but in their book UnChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons examine the many negative perceptions some people, mostly young people, have about Christians. They boil their research down into six broad categories, and conclude that people outside the church often think of Christians as being: homophobic, hypocritical, too political, too focused on getting converts, too sheltered, and way too judgmental.[i] It stings to hear it, and I certainly don’t think it’s true of the Christians in this church, but we’re dealing with perception here, and perception influences how people look at reality.[ii] Kinnaman and Lyons’ book was written in 2012, but even before that the word evangelical, which used to refer to people who loved Jesus and wanted others to follow him, had become a political term that referred to people who could be counted on for the conservative vote. And in a recent opinion piece for Baptist News Global my former church history professor, Bill Leonard, asked if people are able to hear the word Christian these days without thinking of Christian Nationalism, or even White Christian Nationalism, an ideology which suggests that this nation was founded by white Christians and if you are not one of those then you are not welcome.[iii]

            Are you still awake?  And can you see why the word Christian might need to be reclaimed, redeemed, or even replaced? As I was thinking about that last week I went back to my earliest experience of Christianity, to that little Presbyterian Church in Wise, Virginia, where I learned to recite the Apostle’s Creed. As a six-year-old boy I stood with the congregation and said: “I believe in God the Father Almighty,

Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, dead, and buried: he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” When I became a Baptist sixteen years later my pastor asked me what I believed and I recited that creed. “You believe all that?” he asked. I thought for a moment and then said, “Yes. All of it.”

            Forty-two years later, I still do, but my understanding of some of those articles of faith has evolved over time (as it should), and with your permission I’d like to talk about some of the ways my mind has changed. For example, the first part of the creed, the part that says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: I still believe it, but I don’t believe it in the way I used to. When I was six it was easy to imagine God as an old man, sitting on a throne in heaven, saying, “Let there be light!” And it wasn’t hard to believe that he created everything that exists in six, literal, 24-hour days. But then I got older, I went off to college. My professors told me that the heavens and the earth came into existence not by the spoken word of God but rather through a long, slow process called evolution.  

            This is when the crisis of faith comes for some people: when they encounter two, conflicting voices of authority: the pastor who tells them God created the universe in six days and the professor who tells them it evolved over billions of years. They may feel a need to choose between those two voices, to pick one over the other, and this is when many young people choose the voice of their professors over their pastors. This is when some of them walk away from the church for good.

In my case, it wasn’t like that, and here’s why: I don’t see a conflict between creation and evolution. I still believe that God created the heavens and the earth, but I believe that he did it through a long, slow evolutionary process. And why not? God has all the time in the world! When people say, “But what about that part of the Bible that says he did it in six, literal, twenty-four hour days?” I say, “Actually, that’s not what the Bible says. It says God did it in six days, but in another part of the Bible it says that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day, which is to say God’s sense of time is different from ours. And secondly, the only place in the universe I know of where a day takes 24 hours is here on Earth; that’s how long it takes for this planet to make one complete rotation. But according to Genesis 1 the earth wasn’t even created until Day 3. How was time measured before that? How long does it take for the universe to make one complete rotation?

I think those are good arguments, and they may convince you, but they don’t convince everybody. Some people say, “If the first chapter of Genesis isn’t true then none of it is true!” and what they mean is: “If you can’t believe God created the entire universe in six, literal, twenty-four hour days then you might as well throw your Bible out the window!” These people seem to think that the Bible is a book of facts, a kind of Holy Encyclopedia, but the Bible is so much more than that. It is the Word of God for the people of God thanks be to God. And just as a reminder, when Jesus, the Word that was God and was with God in the beginning became flesh and lived among us, he came speaking in parables. Matthew claims, “He did not open his mouth without a parable” (Matt. 13:34). But parables, by definition, are not facts; parables are truth. And while it is true that two plus two is four and also that God is love, only one of those truths will change your life. That’s the kind of truth Jesus was interested in. That’s the kind of truth the Bible is interested in. I’m not saying the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is a parable. I really do believe that God made the heavens and the earth. But I don’t believe that narrative was written to tell us how God did it; I believe it was written to tell us why.

            Let me move on to the next part of the creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” and although it may seem old-fashioned and outdated, I believe all those other things the creed says about him. I believe that he was born of a virgin. You may say that doesn’t sound very scientific, especially for someone who believes in evolution, but we all begin life as single-celled organisms, and we all go through a phase where we look very much like tadpoles, tail and all. I say the God who dreamed up that process can get it started without any outside help. If scientists can fertilize a human egg in a Petri dish, surely God can do it in a virgin’s womb.

And yes, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead—physically, bodily. I know that doesn’t happen to most bodies, but again, I know people who have died on the operating table and been brought back to life by skilled doctors. I’ve had church members that I referred to as “Lazarus,” because they came back from the dead. If human doctors can do that, how much more can God, the author of life, put the breath of life back into his beloved Son, Jesus. I believe that he did it, and I believe he did it for a reason: so that the disciples would believe in him; so they would tell his story; so that it would it travel down through the centuries to people like us so that we, too, could believe.

            Here’s what I think happened. I think those first disciples began to follow Jesus because they were fascinated by him. They had never heard anybody say the kind of things he said; they had never seen anybody do the kind of things he did. If you had asked them in those early days who he was they might have said that he was a great prophet, someone like Elijah, who not only preached powerful sermons but did miraculous things. But as time went by they began to see that he was even more than that, that everything God did Jesus did, and everything God said Jesus said. It came to a head on the road near Caesarea Philippi when he asked them who they thought he was and Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” But after his resurrection they began to say even more than that. They began to say that Jesus was not only the Son of God, but that he was God himself.

            How does that happen? How do strict monotheists like the disciples come to a place where they can say that God is God but Jesus is also God? Well, there’s only one way: through their experience of Jesus. That was what convinced them that he was God in the same way it can convince you that he is God. But once they got to that place there was no going back. When their Jewish brothers said, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4), they had to say, “Well, yes, but, he is also Two.” It sounds like blasphemy. It may have sounded like blasphemy even to them, but they could not deny what they knew about Jesus.

And then came the Holy Spirit.

What happened to those disciples on the Day of Pentecost convinced them all over again that God was bigger than all their previous understanding. This was a God who could come to them in the person of Jesus, but also a God who could come to them in the power of the Spirit. It would take decades, even centuries for those early Christians to work out the complex theology of what we now call the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and even now it is a mystery, but within a few years of that first Pentecost the Apostle Paul was able to end his second letter to the church in Corinth by saying, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” He didn’t use the word trinity, the doctrine hadn’t even been invented yet, but the experience of one God in three persons was real for Paul. He wanted it to be real for that church. Circling back to where we began, this is what I think it means to be a Christian:

  1.  It means that you believe in God, that you have a religious worldview.
  2.  It means that you believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
  3.  It means that you depend on the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit.

But beyond that it means that you have, as Paul had, an experience of “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

            I felt it as a six-year-old boy in that little Presbyterian church in Wise, Virginia. I was part of the family, part of God’s family. I went to Wednesday night prayer meeting in my pajamas. I sang “Jesus loves me” in Sunday school. And in worship I stood with the congregation and said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Near the end of that creed I said, “I believe in the Holy Ghost,” and all these years later I still do. I have experienced the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity, and for me there can be no going back.

            —Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Kinnaman, David; Lyons, Gabe. unChristian (Baker Publishing Group, 2012), pp. 29-30. Kindle Edition.

[ii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-prime/201908/perception-is-not-reality

[iii] https://baptistnews.com/article/theyll-know-we-are-christians-by-our-what/

Peter Remembers Pentecost

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say…”

            It’s the Day of Pentecost, and you’ve heard just the beginning of that story from Acts, chapter two. I want you to hear the rest of the story, but I want you to hear it from the Apostle Peter, who was actually there. This is not a continuation of my Easter Season sermon series, “the Well-Remembered Word,” because it is not a first-person narrative about Jesus, but it is a first-person narrative about the Holy Spirit. So, if you will give me just a second to slip into character, I’ll come back to the pulpit as Peter himself. Yes?

            Yes!

            Well, good morning! It’s a pleasure to be with you, and I’m grateful for the chance to share some of my story. As you know I am not “the Beloved Disciple” (that would be John), but I think I may be everybody’s favorite disciple, mostly because they can relate to me: I’m not perfect; I’ve made some mistakes. But if I have it’s because I’m a whole-hearted person.[i] I followed Jesus with my whole heart. I wanted to make him proud, and for that reason I sometimes leaped before I looked, and sometimes spoke before I thought. Like that time on the road near Caesarea Philippi, when he was asking us who we thought he was and I just blurted it out: “You’re the Messiah!” It’s what everybody else was thinking, but nobody else said it. I did, and Jesus blessed me for it. But then he began to talk about going to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die and, honestly, I could not imagine that happening to the Messiah. So I said that, too. And this time he cursed me. He said, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not thinking the things of God but the things of men.” And that stung, because the truth is I wasn’t thinking at all; I was feeling; I was speaking from the heart.

            And I’m sure you’ve heard about that other time—the time I denied Jesus. It grieves me to think of it even now, but that, too, came from the heart. When Jesus said that he would be arrested and all of us would abandon him I said, “Not me!” Those words leaped out of my mouth. I said, “Even if I have to die with you I will not abandon you!” And Jesus turned to me with a sad look on his face, as if he knew just how much I wanted to follow him and just how miserably I would fail. But this time he didn’t say it like a curse, he said it like the truth: “Before the cock crows tomorrow morning you will have denied me three times.” And that made me even more determined not to do it. But again it was my heart, my fearful heart, that did me in. After his arrest I got as close to Jesus as I could without actually being in the courtroom with him. They were in there, accusing him of every crime they could invent, and I was out there in the courtyard, warming my hands over the fire, when some servant girl recognized me and said, “You’re one of his disciples!”

            Judas betrayed Jesus, but my heart betrayed me. In that moment when I should have stood up to her, when I should have said, “Yes, I’m his disciple, and I’m not ashamed to say so!” my fearful heart leapt into my throat. It did the talking for me. And what it said was, “I don’t even know the man.” I’m ashamed to say it. I’m ashamed to say my fearful heart did it two more times, and when the cock crowed it realized what it had done and broke into a million tiny pieces. I ran out of that courtyard sobbing, the tears running down my face “like rain down a rock,”[ii] because I was Peter: I was “the Rock.” But in that moment I couldn’t imagine how Jesus could ever build a church on a pile of rubble like me. 

            It was later, much later—after he had died and risen, and shown himself to us—that he showed himself again, while we were fishing. John was the first to recognize him. We thought he was just some stranger on the beach, but when he told us to cast our nets on the other side, and we did, and we caught that boatload full of fish, John said, “It is the Lord!” And I was embarrassed. I was stripped down for work. I didn’t want him to see me that way but I wanted to see him so I put my clothes back on and then jumped in the water (do you see what I mean about sometimes leaping before I looked?) But when I got to shore I didn’t know what to do. I was still so mortified by the memory of my denial I couldn’t even look him in the eye. But Jesus knew what to do. He always seemed to know what to do. He said, “Let’s take a walk.” And walking down the beach that way, beside the sea, I didn’t have to look at him and he didn’t have to look at me. He said, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” And that hurt so much—that he would have to ask. But I told him the truth, I said, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And then he asked me again, and then again, and each time I said the same thing, “Lord, you know me. You know everything about me. You know how much I love you!” But somehow saying it out loud like that three times seemed to undo the damage of those three denials. It filled up the hole I had dug for myself with three, big shovels full of love. And at the end of all that he proved that he is the God of the Second Chance, because he said to me what he had said in the very beginning: “Follow me.” And this time I was determined not to let him down.

            So, just before he ascended into heaven, when he told us to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the power from on high, I made up my mind that I was going to do it. Not my heart, mind you—my mind. It was my heart that was always getting me in trouble. I thought I would have better luck with my mind. But don’t you know that as soon as we got back to that upper room my mind told me that what we needed was a disciple to replace Judas. I wish I had waited on that. I wish I had waited until it became clear to all of us that the Lord had picked his own replacement disciple, and that the one he had picked was Paul. But no, I was trusting my mind, and my mind told me something had to be done right away. So we drew lots and picked Matthias and he was a good choice, but looking back, I don’t think he was God’s choice. You never hear from him again in the Bible, do you? No. But you hear a lot about Paul. I think your pastor is going to be talking about Paul this summer; I’ll leave that up to him. What I want to tell you about this morning is what happened next.

            As Luke so accurately reported in the second chapter of Acts, we were all together in one place, in that same, large upper room where we had shared our last meal with Jesus. We were waiting and praying for the promised power from on high. We had been waiting and praying for ten days, and some of us were on the verge of giving up. Some had given up and gone home. But 120 of us were still packed into that upper room praying in shifts so that there wouldn’t be a moment when we weren’t praying. And then, on the Day of Pentecost, just before nine o’clock in the morning, it happened. We began to hear a sound like I used to hear when I was out fishing on the Sea of Galilee, when the wind came roaring through the Valley of the Doves and onto the water with such force it could capsize a fishing boat. But this wind came roaring through the room where we were praying, through closed windows and locked doors. This wind swirled around us and among us and when we sucked in our breath we sucked it into our lungs, and that’s when we found out that it wasn’t wind at all, it was breath:

It was the breath of God.

            I looked around and saw something that looked like flames dancing over people’s heads, like they were literally on fire for the Lord, but that was nothing compared to the light that was shining from their faces. They were lit up from the inside—I was lit up—by the glory of God, the shekinah, and if you’ve never had that experience I don’t know that I can explain it. But I’ll tell you this: we couldn’t contain it. That room couldn’t contain it. We spilled out into the streets whooping and laughing and babbling like idiots, but in other languages. We didn’t know where that came from. We were looking around at each other like, “I didn’t know you spoke Egyptian!” “Well, I didn’t know you spoke Arabic!”  But mostly we were just looking toward heaven, and praising God for his mighty acts in whatever language leapt from our lips.

            The commotion brought a crowd together, faithful Jews from every nation under heaven, and all of them could hear and understand what we were saying in their own languages. They were amazed. But some bystander who didn’t understand anything said, “Look at this bunch of drunks!” And that’s when I finally understood. In that moment I knew it wasn’t that we were full of intoxicating spirits, but that we were full of the Holy Spirit. The same spirit that had been in Jesus, the one that had filled him with such incredible wisdom and power, was now in us—in all of us! And in that moment I knew why Jesus had to leave us: because as long as he was with us the Spirit could only be in him, but once he returned to the Father that same Spirit could be poured out on all of us. And you’re right: none of us got as much of it as he did. Jesus was full of the Spirit like the ocean is full of water. Each of us got only a little, maybe no more than a spoonful, but in my case, at least, that was enough. It was powerful stuff! Suddenly, all those old, earthly fears were gone, and my muddled human thoughts were replaced by God’s own truth. I scrambled to the top step of the building where we were gathered so I could address the crowd.

“Men of Judea,” I said, “and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (Acts 2:14-18, 21).

The sermon went on longer than that. It turns out I had a lot to say, or, rather, the Spirit did. I told them about Jesus, the Messiah, the one they nailed to the cross, the one God raised from the dead. I quoted the Scriptures as if I had memorized them. I made sense of things that until that moment had been a mystery even to me. But when I was finished that crowd was cut to the heart. They stood there in shocked silence until someone said, “Brothers, what should we do?” I said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away.”  And do you know how your pastor gives an altar call at the end of the service, and on a good day two or three people come down the aisle? Well, I’m not bragging—after all, it wasn’t me, it was the Holy Spirit—but that day three thousand people came down the aisle asking to be baptized. And that’s what we did: we went to the Pool of Bethesda and baptized them. At first it was only me since I was the one who suggested it, but have you ever tried to baptize three thousand people? Do you know how tired your arms get? Soon all the rest of the apostles were in the water, baptizing right along with me. We got the job done, and a lot of people went home wet and happy that day. We went home wet, happy, and worn out from all those baptisms, but what a reason to rejoice!

Friends, that happened nearly two thousand years ago, but I’m here today to tell you there is still reason to rejoice. The Spirit of God is still moving among his people. And when you open yourself to that Spirit, when you stop resisting it because you like to be in charge, when you close your eyes and fill your lungs with the divine Breath—with the wisdom and power of God—things will never be the same.

If it were not so, would I have told you?

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] In The Gifts of Imperfection Brené Brown writes: “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” I think Peter could have said that very thing.

[ii] Frederick Buechner, “Peter,” in Peculiar Treasures

When I Find Myself in Times of Trouble

I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to be here with you today. On this side of things, I love worshiping. I’m a retired pastor for about a year and a half, and when I come to this church and sit with my wife, I can’t get through a service without tears filling my eyes. Something that is said or sung in this place touches me at a place deep in my soul. First Baptist of Richmond has had a profound influence on my life from almost the beginning.

I was born of Virginia Baptist and was wrestling with the call to ministry early on, and I remember the first time I ever stepped foot in this building. It was for a Foreign Mission Board appointment ceremony, and I was sitting in the balcony up there. I went and checked out that seat again this morning early, and I heard Baker James Cauthen. Do you remember him giving the charge to the new missionaries? Ted Adams was my favorite seminary professor at Southeastern. I sat on the front row and drank in everything he had to say. Dr. Flamming was a real encouragement to me when I was president of Virginia Baptist and Jim and Christy have become. Dear friends. We always look forward to coming into this place on Sunday because we know we’re going to hear a great sermon from Jim Somerville. So I don’t know about you, but I’m a little disappointed today that, that he’s not preaching. But we’re going to do our best.

We’re going to we’re going to go through this for the next few moments and hopefully I’ll have a message from God’s word for you. The longer passage you heard some of it, the longer passage from First Peter starts in chapter four. Would you take a Bible and turn there? The Pew Bible or your own or your phone or whatever you use? First, Peter, Chapter four, beginning at verse 12. Four, verse 12. Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come to you, to test you as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insomuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you’re insulted because of the name of Christ, you’re blessed for the Spirit of God and of glory and power rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or a thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler, a busybody. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed. But praise God that you bear that name, for it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household. And if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the Gospel of God? And if it’s hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner? So then those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator and continue to do good.

It was the spring of 1945. Vice President Harry Truman was back in his old quarters in the Congress, in the Capitol building. He was having a drink and maybe playing some cards and catching up on congressional gossip when suddenly that meeting was interrupted, and he was summoned to the White House. They didn’t tell him why, but they rushed him to the White House upstairs and took him into a room where the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, was standing. He suspected it then. She said to him, “Harry, the president is dead.” He said to her what you would say. “Mrs. Roosevelt, is there anything I can do for you?” She said, “Harry, is there anything we can do for you? For you’re the one in trouble now.” The next day, he said, I felt in that moment, like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me. He asked the reporters if they ever prayed to pray for him then. He didn’t know anything about the atomic bomb, the decision he would have to make very, very soon. He knew there was a war to end.

You’ve not had troubles like that. But maybe you’ve had some fiery troubles, too. You’ve not suffered like Peter suffered in Acts Chapter three. He healed a beggar, a lame beggar, and he got called on the carpet. The religious leaders brought him in. They roughed him up a little bit. You’ve not had that happen to you. In Chapter 12 of the Book of Acts, Herod decided he would gain some popularity points by arresting Peter, had him thrown into the inner prison surrounded by guards, and the scripture says in Acts chapter 12, and this is a lesson for us that Peter slept. As far as he knows he’s dying the next day. Somebody else had already been executed. He was next. And yet he slept like a baby.

You’ve not had that happen to you. but you’ve had some trials. All God’s children have problems. What are you going to do? When I find myself in times of trouble? What do you do? Well, what’s your reaction? The initial reaction? He says, don’t be surprised. It can be startling. You didn’t see it coming. It came so suddenly. Everything is fine in your life. You’ve got things together and then reality breaks in. There are a lot of folks out on the golf course today. You invited them to come to church, but they’re not interested. Ask them again sometime. But they’re not interested. They don’t need God, but Tuesday they’ve got an appointment with their doctor. And the oncologist is going to give them some devastating news. And suddenly they’ll be interested, in eternal things. Reality has a way of breaking in. Fiery trials show up suddenly.

David Lodge was in a play in London’s West End back in the early 60s, and in the play, his character had to demonstrate nonchalance at a particular moment in the play, and to do that he picked up a transistor radio and cut it on, expecting to hear Chubby Checker and The Twist. Instead, he heard the startling news bulletin out of Dallas that President John F Kennedy had just been assassinated. He tried to turn it off. He realized the devastation of that news. He tried to cut it off, but the audience heard it and they got up and rushed out of the theater. Reality broke in.

Don’t be surprised and don’t give in to self-pity. When troubles come in, your family life and your physical life. When trials come, sometimes we say, “Why me? Why did this have to happen to me?” Well, I don’t know that it had to happen, but it certainly did happen. But why me? Why not me? Why not you? Troubles come to everybody. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow. Do you sing that song? God knows. He knows our every trial, our every need. Stay calm. That’s what Peter does in Acts Chapter 12. He stays calm. You might want to look for a reason. Now, you may not find one for why this is happening to you right now, but go ahead and look. Often we bring trials on ourselves. Why did God do this to me? God didn’t do this to you. You made a bad choice.

And so Peter mentions that, don’t suffer like a murderer. If you’re a murderer, you’re going to be arrested and tried and convicted. Don’t suffer as a murderer or a thief or any other kind of criminal or even as a busybody. You stuck your nose in somebody else’s business and it backfired on you. Sometimes we bring troubles on ourselves. We shouldn’t blame God. The scripture that you heard read earlier, be sober, be alert. Your enemy, your adversary, the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. I don’t know if you believe in him, but I believe the devil is real. I believe he exists. I think that’s the only way you can explain some of the things that are happening in our world. And the devil, if he’s real. He has an agenda for each one of us. He doesn’t want to just make life difficult. What does Peter say? He wants to devour us like a roaring lion. Walketh about seeking someone to devour. He wants to destroy your family. That’s why you’re tempted in some of the ways you’re tempted. He wants to destroy your family. Those children growing up under your roof that are looking to you for an example, for life. If he can destroy you, he can destroy them. He’s always trying to destroy churches like this. If the witness of First Baptist Church can be sidelined, he’s won a major victory.

Some troubles come because of the attack of the adversary. But in chapter four, verse 19, listen to this. So then those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator. Sometimes suffering is God’s will for us. It’s not that he sits in heaven devising ways to make our lives miserable. You’ve not had troubles lately, so he just decides to send a lightning bolt your way. It’s not that. But he has a will to give us hope and a future. Difficulties come because he has his will that he’s working out. And when we suffer as a Christian, when we suffer for the name of Jesus, we take a stand. We stand for righteousness. Sometimes we suffer persecution. Not like they do in Third World countries and other places of the world where people give their lives for their faith. It hasn’t happened to us and we’ve, but we’ve suffered some persecution, some ridicule. Maybe we’re, we’re not included in some things because we make others feel uncomfortable. We shouldn’t do it intentionally, but it just happens sometimes. That’s God’s will. He says, Continue, continue to do good. John Lewis spoke of good trouble and there’s a trouble that’s good when it makes a difference for the Gospel of Christ. Romans Chapter eight, verse 18 says, For I reckon that the sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. God’s glory and God’s power.

So troubles come. They come for a lot of reasons. Maybe the worst thing has happened to you. You’re going through the worst thing right now. I don’t know what it is. The worst thing. I love what Frederick Buechner said with God because of the resurrection. The worst thing is never the last thing. You’re going through something right now, but God on his throne can do something wonderful. Even with that, the Bible doesn’t say that all things work together for good things don’t work together for good. The Scripture says in Romans 8:28 that God is able to take all things and when they’re placed in his hand, bring about good from them. It’s God who does it. It can be God’s will. The question is for us today, before we go, is how are we going to respond? How are we going to react? We want to act correctly when we go through trials and tribulations.

Somebody once taught me that maturity is the ability to respond appropriately in any given situation. So if you’re mature. Now in every situation that’s a that’s a tall order, but most situations you can respond correctly. We have that freedom. We can choose our response. Peter stays calm and acts Chapter 11. And that’s why he writes to us when we go through this difficulty. Don’t be surprised. Chapter four, verse 13 says, But rejoice. Rejoice. In Philippians chapter four, Paul the Apostle said, Rejoice in the Lord. Always and again I say, Rejoice. Don’t worry about anything. But in everything with prayer and supplication. Make your requests known unto God and the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard. Keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. So rejoice. It doesn’t mean be happy. Happiness is determined by circumstances, and your circumstances are not good. But you can rejoice. Joy is the settled disposition of your heart, toward God. It’s a, it’s a thermostat rather than the thermometer that measures happiness. It sets the mood of your spirit. And then in chapter five, Resist the devil if the trial is coming from the devil and he’s seeking to devour you, resist him. James said the same thing. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God and say no to the devil.

Now I’m afraid of a lion. You know, the MGM lion on the movies used to scare me when I would go. And I’ve never been face to face with a real lion. But when I see lion cubs on some nature program on television, they’re so very cute, aren’t they? And they’re being cared for and maybe nursed and and they’re just lovable. And we need to remember that they’re lions. That are going to grow up when you allow them in your heart. They’re going to grow up. Until they destroy you. So resist the devil and he will flee. Don’t give him an opportunity. Don’t, don’t make plans to do evil. We’re tempted enough as it is in everyday life. Don’t plan on it. Don’t. Don’t make provision for the flesh. Seek to live for Christ in everything you do.

But I want to close with this because this is going to be the most important thing, I think, when you’re going through trials and troubles and difficulties in your life, remain close to the family. Remain close to the church. First Peter, Chapter five, verse nine. Resist the devil. Stand firm in the faith. Because you know that the family of believers. I love that word. It’s not the church isn’t an organization. It’s not a club you join. It’s a family you’re born into. You know that the family of believers of in the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. We draw strength from each other. I know there Sundays you don’t feel like coming. There are other things going on. It’s too, it’s too rainy outside or it’s too beautiful outside. Any number of reasons to not be in church. Maybe you’re hurting. Maybe a church hurt you somewhere along the way and you’ve given up on organized religion. I was, I was in an Uber recently, and the driver was a crusty sort of individual, and I tried to start a conversation with him about faith, and I ask him about his religious affiliation. And he said, “Oh, I don’t I don’t go to church anymore. I was raised in it. I was a Catholic altar boy and I saw so much corruption, religion is just a crutch. I don’t need it.” And I said,” Well, you know, maybe one day you’ll change your mind. Maybe God put me in your Uber to remind you that he loves you, even with that attitude.” He just gruff and grunted when we got to my place. As we’re pulling into the driveway, he said. “The doctors told me this week, I’ve got just a few weeks to live. I’ve never told anybody that. But I’m telling you.” I said, “Maybe God put me in this car to remind you that he loves you and wants you to come to him.” We need each other. Especially in time. Don’t quit on church and don’t quit on your faith, when the times are tough.

One more story and I’m gone. I was doing a funeral back in Alexandria a few years ago in our chapel, and it was an elderly woman. And as we were planning the service, her 20 something year old granddaughter asked if she could sing. And of course it’s family and I’m going to let them do what they want to do. But I said, You sure you want to do that? I mean, it’s hard enough to speak when you’re a family member, but to sing and hold a melody, it’s going to be hard, she said. But I want to do it. So she sang. She didn’t have anybody to keep her baby, her toddler, and she stood up behind the pulpit holding a child as she sang His Eye is on the Sparrow, and I know he watches me, Ethel Waters old song. And she was all right. She did okay with it until she got to the chorus. I sing because I’m happy. And she broke down. Began to weep. Inconsolably. She stopped. But the pianist continued to play. And the congregation picked up the melody and they kept singing until she was able to get into the song again. And I thought, Well, that’s what church is. There are times when we lose the melody. We don’t know the words. We, we don’t know what we believe anymore. It’s in moments like that that the the church, our fellow believers, they sing for us until we can do it again. What’s the point of the sermon today? Troubles are going to come, if you’re not in trouble right now, you’ve just come out of it or you’re getting ready to go into it. God is there. God will take care of you as you look to him for strength. This is the word of the Lord for us today.