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Archive for December, 2009

What Is the Purpose of a Sermon?

Preaching has always had a central role in the life and work of the church.  While they may look and sound different through the ages and cultures, sermons have always been around and show no signs of going away.  For some unknown reason, I began thinking about what the purpose of a sermon is.  Why do preachers preach?  I thought this could be a good question for our reader(s) to sound off on.

I suspect the answer is something along the lines of “the purpose of a sermon is to explain and apply the Scripture,” with the assumption that 2 Timothy 3:16 applies: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV).

Now, it’s always dangerous that a post asking for interaction will end up with tumbleweed blowing by and crickets chirping in the background.  But I’m hoping we’ll get some thoughts thrown out here.  Let me ask a few questions, though feel free to pick up a tangent you might think is helpful:

1) Do you agree with the purpose of a sermon given above (keeping in mind I’m simply trying to give what I think is the most common sentiment)?

2) What would you say the purpose (or purposes) of a sermon is?

3) In your opinion, have most sermons you’ve heard in your lifetime fulfilled this purpose?

4) Have any of these been lacking in the majority of sermons you’ve heard: teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness?

Okay, go at it.  Let me say that I do think it’s good to think through these things every so often.  It’s easy to get too comfortable with church life that we don’t ask why we do the things we do, or even if we’re doing it for the reasons we should be.  In my opinion, that’s a quick way to make the work of the church ineffective.

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Book Giveaway at Kingdom People

(Yeah, I know, it’s been slow around here and I”m cheating by linking to other places.  Sorry.)

Trevin Wax, who has been mentioned previously on this site, is having a book giveaway over at his blog, Kingdom People.  You have the opportunity to win 10 books (Trevin’s Top 10 of 2009) along with his soon-to-be released book and an ESV Study Bible.  Click through on the link and check it out.

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Gordon-Conwell grads in Detroit

Things are a little slow here at BBG.  Sorry about that; I guess that’s what happens during the holidays (maybe I could blame the snow, but I’m in Florida).  I did want to direct you to an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal regarding Mack Avenue Community Church in Detroit (HT: Kevin DeYoung, a Gordon-Conwell man).  It’s a relatively new church plant seeking to spread the gospel of Jesus in the midst of a horrible economic time for that city.  The church is headed up by a team of Gordon-Conwellians: Eric Russ, Eric Nielson, and Leon Stevenson.  I recognize Nielson and Stevenson, but I had a preaching class with Eric Russ.  I remember him being such a genuine guy with a passion for the Lord; he was one of the most respected men on campus.  If you take a minute and read the article, I think you’ll see why.

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I’m going to be honest: I don’t feel like I read as many good books this year as I did last year.  My guess is that’s due largely to having a baby in April; less time = fewer books, unless you count Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See.  When I did this list last year, I had to think about how to narrow down my number to 5.  This year, I’m pushing it to get to 5.  Anyway, here goes.  Like last year, books on this list may not have been published in 2009 (I don’t have time to keep that up-to-date), but that I first read it this year.  Here we are, in no particular order:

The Epic of Eden, by Sandra Richter

Okay, I lied about the whole “no particular order” thing.  This was my favorite new read of 2009.  Simply put, this is the best book that I’ve read geared towards lay people that clearly explains the often foreign world of the Old Testament.  As I said in my review, “One gets the sense that she’s explained these things in non-academic settings before.”  My biggest complaint now is trying to find a way to fit it into an already jammed packed training school curriculum.

Introducing Paul, by Michael Bird

This is another book written by a biblical scholar but can be read by non-scholars.  I mentioned Bird’s wit in my review, as well as in a video, and it helps liven up the book considerably.  There are a million books out there on Paul, but few that lay out the issues so clearly as this one.  Bird isn’t content to focus merely on academic debates, but can get practical as well.  I look forward to what this young scholar will be offering down the road, and I hope he continues writing books on this level as well as his more in-depth academic treatments.

The Revelation of Saint John, by Ian Boxall

After reading this book, I finally felt like I had found a commentary on Revelation I could recommend to people in my church.  Let me be clear, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.  By its very nature any commentary on Revelation will be a bit difficult to wade through.  But time and time again I felt like Boxall took a position and explained it clearly and concisely.  By the end of it I found myself wishing he had more space.  One of Boxall’s strength is the use of Ezekiel in Revelation, which has inspired me to study Ezekiel more in-depth than I ever had before (I’m actually following through on what I wrote in my review of this book).  At any rate, this is my favorite non-technical commentary on Revelation.

The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24, by Daniel Block

Okay, I’m cheating a bit here.  One, I haven’t actually finished this book.  Two, it was published 12 years ago (hence my “not necessarily published in 2009” caveat above).  Block’s 2-volume commentary has been regarded by many evangelical scholars as the best commentary on Ezekiel since it came out.  As mentioned above, Boxall on Revelation inspired me to study Ezekiel more deeply, so I used some gift cards to get Block’s commentary.  I’m so thankful I did, as it has been a reliable (and enjoyable) guide to this often confusing OT prophet.

We Become What We Worship, by Gregory Beale

I think I have to include this one, since I did a 5-Part book review of it.  I had my disagreements with Beale’s exegesis at points, thinking that he stretched a bit to fit things under his thesis.  But still, I came away with a stronger sense of the Bible’s teaching on idolatry and how it destroys our worship of our God.  Tough reading at points, but worth the time and effort.

Honorable Mention

The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons

Okay, this is definitely cheating.  But, this is Boston Bible Geeks, and Bill Simmons is known as the Boston Sports Guy.  Maybe there aren’t that many people who would read a 700 page book on the NBA, and even fewer who would do it in a weekend, but I’m one of them.  The problems with Simmons: juvenile humor and an overload of soon-to-be-outdated pop culture references (which I’m sure will be his excuse to update this book every 5-10 years to sell more copies).  The upside: well, he writes about sports and entertains while he does it.  I’m a sucker for sports history- comparing eras, taking on longheld myths, arguing about which players are the best and who’s overrated.  Sure, Simmons is gimmicky and overplays his “I’m just an average fan” hand.  (He brags about how he pays for his season tickets instead of using a press pass- big deal when you make a ton of money and have the time to go to all those games.)  But, he does take the discussions that many of us “regular” fans have and turns them into columns and books, and manages to do it reasonably well.  He isn’t for everybody, but for the younger generation of  Boston sports fans, well, we’re obligated to read him.

How about you?  I’d love to hear some thoughts from our reader(s) regarding what new reads they’d recommend for us.

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On Praying Well

Many years ago, a friend told me that it is impossible to pray incorrectly.  From God knowing our requests before we request them (Mt. 6:8), to the Holy Spirit’s intercession (Rom. 8:26-27), it is a valid point.  We might also note that, by definition, prayer is fundamentally an attempt to communicate with God.  In this way, I can’t pray incorrectly any more than I can communicate  incorrectly to another person.  There are, of course, a multitude of ways we might refine this thought.  For example, while I cannot express myself incorrectly, I can express myself inappropriately.  “Hey daddy-o, howz about wording up some mad blessings on this grub, dig?”  would not be an appropriate prayer to bless a meal, because it is not how we should address our Creator and Savior.  Reverence, respect, and humility should characterize our prayers.  We should also bring to bear texts like Jas. 1:5-8; 4:3, Mt. 6:5-15, Php. 4:6, and 1 Thess. 5:17, to name a few.   The Bible is filled with examples and commands regarding prayer; indeed, its largest book (Psalms) is a collection of prayers!

During a recent bout of late night introspection, I started to read through older entries in my journal.  Said journal is often neglected, but when it is put to use, its primary function is to hold my written prayers to God (side note: this is an excellent help for those of us who struggle with a wandering mind during prayer).  I was struck by how much my prayers revealed about my walk with God.  It gave me solid evidence for evaluating what I think of Him, how I relate to Him, and what the priorities are in my life.

From time to time it may be helpful to examine our own prayers.  After all, if I were to reflect on my relationship with my wife, one of the first places I’d look is at our communication.  How do I talk to her?  How often?  What’s my tone?  Do I speak to her respectfully and lovingly?  What do I usually talk about?  Do I spend most of my words on requests – or demands! – or do I frequently praise her for the blessing she is in my life?  Do I speak to her only when something important comes up, or do I also share my thoughts on smaller matters?  Are all of our conversations focussed on me?  How often do I listen?  How important is it to me?  Do I miss it when we don’t talk to each other?  Is my speech filled with vague platitudes, or clear sincerity?

Honest answers to these types of questions can show us aspects of our walk with the Lord that we might not otherwise see.  An examination of our prayers might reveal attitudes, patterns and behaviors that require repentance, and are no help to our relationship with God.

While it may not be possible to pray incorrectly, I do believe it is possible to pray well.  I do not mean this in the sense that we can learn to say the right words with the right inflection at the right times, but rather in the sense that prayers are a crucial component to our walk with God.  Praying well is tantamount to following God well.  The former is really little more than an evidence of the latter.  I would even go so far as to take a cue from James, and adapt his (in?)famous words on faith and works:  Do you love God?  Then show me your prayers (c.f., Jas. 2:14-18).

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I first heard of David Bentley Hart’s new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, on volume 98 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.  Thanks to some leftover birthday money, it was soon at my doorstep.  I will give the book an “official” review at a later date.  In this post, I wanted to look at a larger issue catalyzed by the first paragraph in Atheist Delusions, which I will quote at length.  Hart opens by setting the context for his book, which seeks to uncover the folly of today’s popular atheists (pp.3-4):

Conditions in the world of print have never before been so propitious for sanctimonious tirades against religion, or (more narrowly) monotheism, or (more specifically) Christianity, or (more precisely) Roman Catholicism…The God Delusion, an energetic attack on all religious belief, has just been released by Richard Dawkins, the zoologist and tireless tractarian, who – despite his embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning – never fails to entrance his eager readers with his rhetorical recklessness.  The journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic, has just issued God Is Not Great, a book that raises the wild non sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method…Sam Harris’s extravagantly callow attack on all religious belief, The End of Faith, has enjoyed robust sales…Philip Pullman’s evangelically atheist (and rather overrated) fantasy trilogy for children, His Dark Materials, has been lavishly praised by numerous critics…its third volume…has even won the (formerly) respectable Whitbread Prize.  And one hardly need mention the extraordinary sales achieved by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code [sic]…surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate.  I could go on.

My initial reaction to Hart’s asperity (his word), was gleeful laughter.  The quote above is more or less indicative of the tone throughout the book:  Hart plays the role of the mature, erudite professor scolding a bunch of juvenile high school students (Dawkins, et al) for their facile, jejune publications.  I’ve found similar joy in reading other authors who embarrass their opponents with such delightful eloquence.

I question, however, whether or not I am right to “delight” in such things.  Though I can’t say for sure, I’ll wager my delight in Hart’s deconstruction of Hitchens is mirrored by atheists who delight in Hitchens’ anti-Christian vitriol.  Everybody loves to root for their own side, and when your team scores a touchdown (real or perceived), it’s hard not to cheer.

But therein lies the rub.  These people (outspoken atheists in this case) are not my enemies.  Nor do I think the “us versus them” mentality is an especially Christ-like posture, let alone one conducive to helpful, civil dialogue.  “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” after all (Eph.6:12), and where is it written that we are to rejoice when another human being receives their comeuppance?  Does God take pleasure in the punishment of the wicked (see Ezk. 18:32, Mt. 23:37, among others)?  Should we?

For example, in the many harsh expositions of the New Testament (such as Mt. 23, 2 Tim. 3:1-9, Jude 8-16) I don’t find any indication that fist-pumping glee is the proper reaction.  Why, then, is it often my own?  When Dan Brown’s historiography is exposed for what it is (i.e., excrement), why do I get a warm feeling inside my chest?  To wit: my last sentence brought about a wry smile to my face.

Simply put, I am offended by attacks against my God, and I long to see His Truth vindicated.  When another person wages warfare against the beliefs – indeed, the Person! – I hold in highest esteem, it is injurious in two ways.  First, I feel it as a personal attack, not unlike somebody decrying my own father or wife.  Second, I understand the attack as a lie, and wish the truth to be known over and against it.  I don’t find anything sinful in these reactions, per se.  They are often cast under the umbrella or “righteous indignation” or “righteous anger,” against which I have no beef.  It is rather the attitude behind my reaction that I believe to be sinful:  I am hurt, so I wish to hurt back, even if vicariously through another author.  Speaking, writing or appreciating a harsh rebuke is no sin, but the attitude behind it can be.

I believe the key to reacting well is to maintain the distinction between the attacker and the attack.  The attack (the anti-Christian proposition), is of the devil.  It is a lie to be hated and defeated.  We love the Truth, and rejoice when the Truth is shown to triumph over the lie.  The attacker (the person), is loved by God, and therefore loved by us.  Our attitude towards him or her is primarily loving.  To see one loved by God so viciously attack Him is ultimately a sorrowful affair.  If fatherhood has taught me anything, it is that it is possible to be angry with somebody while simultaneously loving them and laboring for their best.  I’ve never once rejoiced at my thorough, truthful rebuke of my own son.  Rather, my heart is always heavy.  We must walk carefully, however, lest our attitude becomes, “Poor things, they’re so deceived.”  We could just as well commit the error of the Pharisee in Lk. 18:11 and thank God we’re not one of those people.

It is often the case that the attack and attacker become blurred in my mind.  I confuse the person with the proposition, and make the mistake of thinking that a given philosophical stance exhaustively defines who somebody is.  The sayings are perhaps trite, but loving the sinner and hating the sin goes a long way to reacting well, so also does speaking the truth in love.  Honestly, I think I fail at this more often than I succeed, as perhaps my writings on this blog (this post, even) will testify.  Would that the scales tip in the opposite direction for me and all of God’s children soon.

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There’s a new surge to put “Christ back in Christmas” going around these days, headed up by James Dobson and Focus on the Family.  You can check them out at Stand for Christmas.  On this website you’ll see reviews and ratings of various retailers to help determine whether they are “Christmas Friendly,” “Christmas Negligent” or “Christmas Offensive.”  Have you ever walked into a store and hear “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” and bristled with righteous indignation?  Now’s your chance to let them hear it… by posting a comment on a website no one outside of a relatively small number of evangelical/fundamentalists will take seriously.  Yeah, that’ll show ’em.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one.  Maybe the site’s subtitle: “Now Customers Have a Voice.”  Hmm, I thought customer’s always had a voice: their wallet.  You know, if you don’t want to shop at a store, you don’t have to.  Wow, that capitalism sure is crazy.

Or maybe we should talk about how this group has fallen into, what I deem to be, a problem of our culture at large.  That is, everyone is just so easily offended.  Really, you are offended because the 18-year-old working at American Eagle for the discount said “Happy Holidays” to you as you checked out?  Yeah, I really hate that jerk, too.

Being offended is a proud heritage in our culture.  In fact, it’s even #101 on the list of Stuff White People Like.  Maybe my skin is too thick, but I just can’t get offended that easily.  Christians, though, and evangelicals in particular, have a bit of a persecution complex.  In some cases, it’s legit.  But I’m not sure how someone not using the term “Christmas” is truly an offensive thing to me.  I’d be much more offended if the kid at American Eagle said, “hey, you might want to but those pants one size bigger… I mean, you’re not getting any younger and studies show that you’re much more likely to expand than shrink at your age, especially with the holiday (oops, I mean “Christmas”) season coming up.”

After all, why should I expect a non-Christian business (we’ll set aside the issue, for the moment, of whether or not a business can be “Christian” anyway) to celebrate the birth of the Savior they don’t believe in?  Tell me, does it honor God for someone who doesn’t even acknowledge him in thought or deed to say the word “Christmas?”  We’re talking about the same God who rejected the sacrifices (which were commanded by him, unlike this holiday) of his people because they didn’t honor him with their lives.

Now, I think it’s ridiculous that retailers can be skittish about saying “Merry Christmas,” too, but for the same reason I think it’s ridiculous that the Stand for Christmas website even exists: it succumbs to the easily offended culture.  Retailers are afraid that someone will be offended if they say “Merry Christmas” when they actually celebrate Hanukkah.  In my experience, most people are not offended by such a thing.  Before I was married, I used to frequent Quiznos.  There was a girl working there who I talked to every now and then when I was eating there.  One winter I wished her a Merry Christmas, only to have her tell me she celebrated Hanukkah.  So, I wished her a Happy Hanukkah.  Simple as that.  No offense given, none taken.

Forgive me if I’m upset that there are a group of Christians out there who have decided to fight fire with fire, or “being offended” with “being offended.”  If the non-Christian world thinks they can be offended, well we can be too!  I can’t believe this masquerades as a strategy to battle “censorship.”

There has to be a better way to stand for Christmas.  How about this: when you walk into a retailer, strike up a conversation with the workers there.  Ask them about their holiday plans.  See what holiday they celebrate and ask them why.  Tell them why Christmas is special to you.  Tell them about how God became man in order that we might know God.  Tell them about why the manger scene is so important- that God wasn’t born in a beautiful palace to a king with a royal court celebrating, but in a manger with farm animals present.  Talk to them about the angels’ appearance to the shepherds.  Tell them about those who waited in eager expectation for the Messiah to be born.   It seems to be that this is a much better way to put Christ back in Christmas.

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