Sermon Series: Perfect Peace

If you think you want to preach, feel free to work with any or all of these concepts at any time:

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1. “How can we sing at a time like this?” Psalm 137:1-4. 1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

2. “How can you eat at a time like this?” Ezekiel 2:7-8.  7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. 8 But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

3. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” Matthew 8:23-27. Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” 26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. 27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

4. Why aren’t you worried?” Acts 28:1-6. Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

 

The More Things Change….

Today’s Google Doodle (2/19/13) is a model of our solar system, celebrating what would have been Copernicus‘ 540th birthday. He did a lot in his day, but perhaps what he’s best known for is leading the scientific charge to prove that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around.

Copernicus was a devoted Christian–there technically were no scientists back then, but he did study math, the stars, economics, medicine, and more. In those days, everyone ascribed to geocentrism-the belief that the sun, moon, planets, and other stars all revolve around the earth. 

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Makes sense on the surface if you’ve ever looked up at the sun or night sky. Plus, the Bible backs the idea up:

“The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” I Chronicles 16:30

“The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Psalm 104:5

“The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.” Ecclesiastes 1:5

The Bible, conventional wisdom, and plain old common sense taught people one “right” way of thinking about the issue for thousands of years.

But Copernicus (who was a devoted Christian) and many others weren’t satisfied with traditional explanations. What about the fact that Venus and Mars appear to revolve around the sun? If we assume the sun is at the center, all our other calculations make sense. Just for the sun to provide heat and light to the planet from a great distance, it has to be many times larger than the earth, and that would make it likely that the earth is subject to the sun, not the other way around–call it heliocentrism.

Maybe, just maybe, God made the earth revolve around the sun.

Whoa, that’s crazy talk in the 15th century! People were kicked out of the church, put on house arrest, and even killed for pressing this theory forward. “The Bible makes it plain, so why don’t you just leave it alone, Copernicus?”

He couldn’t leave it alone because the facts told a different story. It wasn’t good enough to accept what he had been taught by other people. He was on a quest to discover what revelations if any God had for the current time.

It must be pointed out that even though he went against what the majority of Bible believing folks believed, and even though he was more right than they were, he didn’t have it completely correct either. The most notable hole in his theory is the concept that the entire universe revolves around our sun. Astronomers building on his work later discovered that our sun is one star out of billions in our galaxy, and our galaxy is one of billions of known galaxies in the universe.

Copernicus’ work didn’t set out to “prove the Bible wrong,” nor could it. The people who wrote the Bible were inspired. Copernicus was also inspired, and he had the benefit of more knowledge. The Bible says “the earth can’t be moved,” but in fact it’s moving around the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour and spinning on its axis at 1000 miles per hour. Whether those facts go against your biblical interpretation or not–you’re along for the ride.

 

Nine Nine Oh Nine

No_9Well, today is September 9, 2009, 9/9/09. I haven’t heard much talk about it. Interesting, because we know that if 9 was considered an “unlucky” number, it would be all over the news.

What does a good Christian like me care about numerology, anyway? The fact is, numbers carry a lot of signficance in the Bible. You don’t get far in your Christian journey before learning that numbers like 3, 7, and 40 have a great deal of significnce. They are more than just numbers.

Well, if those numbers have symbolic meaning, it stands to reason that all the others mean something, too.

Many of the same people who teach us that  the number 7 represents perfection or completeness say that the number 9 stands for compassion, wisdom, and forgiveness.

The day seems pretty harmless to me. It’s just as silly to get all holy-roller dogmatic and bent out of shape over numerology as it is to buy into it too much. But don’t front like you don’t believe in it if on some level, you really do.

Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.” –Jeremiah 10:5

NOTHING Shall Be Imposible

Luke 1:37 says, “For with God, nothing shall be impossible.”

If you take a look through the Good Book, you will see that there is biblical precedent for a lot of supernatural activity. There’s dream interpretation, people making prophecies about the future, healing by the laying on of hands, humans speaking to angels, animals speaking to people, people being raised from the dead–all these miraculous and improbable things happen in the Bible.

I don’t have a problem with any of this. In fact, I figure that since God is all-powerful, all of these things and more are possible, and most Christians agree with me.

dream_of_joseph_champaigneWhat gets me is the way many believers will accept something like dream interpretation because it’s in the Bible, yet completely reject other divine arts like palm reading or horoscopes because they are not in the Bible.

If there’s any kind of wisdom to be gained, help to be given, or knowledge to be revealed, musn’t God somehow be in the mix? I’m talking specifically about things like astrology, palm reading, astral projection, and numerology.

If I’m being a good Christian, I am always seeking Christ and his righteousness first. But there is so much in the world that we can learn about. For example, to my knowledge, algebra is not in the Bible. Still, I’m glad I learned about it because it helps me interpret my surroundings that much better. I don’t think it’s blasphemous to learn about any of the academic disciplines or the arts.

So why are compassionate, wise astrologers often considered anti-Christian? God made the stars and planets, the astrologers are just observing them. It seems like if dream interpretation and healing by touch are OK, and if the wise men followed a star to find Jesus, then astrology is probably all right as well. And that would open the door to a lot of other spiritual disciplines, some of which are not mentioned specifically in the Bible.

I realize I will probably be getting myself into some trouble with some Christians here. Being dedicated to Christ is vital. But being afraid of things we don’t understand just won’t cut it.

Just Let It Go

When I was in the Peace Corps, I had a lot of time on my hands. I’m not proud of some of the things I did with that time, but one good thing I managed to do was read a Bible all the way through, underlining everything that resonated with me in any way. Then, I took my journal and wrote out about 600 of the most striking verses and stories. I had funny stories about circumcisions and witches, simple bits of wisdom you could live your life by, people being unwittingly impaled, inspiring verses that held obvious sermon seeds, sexually explicit lyrics, all the good stuff. Everything anyone ever talks about when they talk about the Bible, I had it in my 20-page handwritten reference.

I used that reference I made for years. I used to call it “The Light,” a play on its brevity and its enlightening power. When I didn’t know what to preach about, 5 minutes in The Light, and I was back on track. Someone wanted to know where in the Bible the men tried to gang rape two angels, I’d check The Light and tell them it was Genesis 19.

For the past eight years, I relied on The Light. I put a lot of work in to compile it, and it served me well. Sure enough, when I moved from New York to Los Angeles to finally become a full time pastor, I lost that journal among other things on the move. I have combed every bag and box we brought, which wasn’t all that much anyway, and it’s not here.

At first, I felt real despair, but I’m learning that despair and self-doubt don’t do me any good. I still have the same job description and the same preaching and teaching responsibilities Light or no Light. I just let it go.

I figure that God must not want me to be relying on it too much. Even though that frankly doesn’t make sense to me, I know that if my old notes were absolutely essential to my new job, I would still have them. So I just let them go. They’re gone anyway, so holding on to the memory and how easy things were in the good old days will only make me miserable. And since being miserable makes me miserable, I just let it go.

Just let it go.

“The Hip-Hop of Preaching”

About 2 weeks ago, I heard Kirk Byron Jones preach at the American Baptist Convention. I had never heard of him, but I figured he must have some skills, as he was one of only 2 or 3 people chosen to preach to the entire convention. He pretty much lived up to the hype. He was funny; he was dead serious; he made us think about the biblical text in ways we hadn’t before; he made us face some of our frailties; he gave me a shot in the arm of courage; and he was finished in well under a half an hour.

I was so impressed, I went to meet him at a book signing later that evening and felt moved to buy his book, “The Jazz of Preaching: How to preach with great freedom and joy.”

I got from the book that the most dangerous thing that can happen to a person who preaches the gospel is to become “a reverend.” What that means is, we can not afford to lose our personal lives to our professional roles. Sure, I’m a clergyman, a pastor, an expositor of the kerygma. But does that mean I can’t still play basketball, make love, tweet on Twitter, dance, or go to the movies? When people who know me as “a reverend” witness me talk about or do any of these things, there is often some surprise. But if I didn’t live fully in this world of ours, I’d have no way to relate to people, and nothing worthwhile to say to them, either.

For Jones, jazz is the inspirational force that takes him inside himself. He notes the way the musicians aren’t afraid to improvise, the way the blues is so painfully honest, the way artists can sit and dream up “the right note” instead of forcing it, and I agree.

Only thing is, I’m not a jazz guy. I’m just not. I would never badmouth Ella, Coltrane, Miles, Dizzy, or Louis. The creative genius is undeniable. My wife and I played Todd Ledbetter  for 10 hours straight while she gave birth. Jazz has its place. I can appreciate it, it’s just not my favorite type of music.

I was raised to love hip-hop. The same way the author of “The Jazz of Preaching” finds confidence and comfort in jazz–that’s how I feel about rap. Yes, some of the language is inappropriate, but Miles Davis and John Coltrane weren’t choir boys, either, so big deal.

Rap teaches me bravado, not to be afraid to say what I feel. They use every ounce of their vocabulary. The greats are clearly inspired and inspiring. Rappers have style. The best rappers set high goals for themselves and work hard to achieve them. The beats alone are often mesmerizing and transcendent. This author (Kirk Byron Jones) is making a case for jazz, but I think many types of secular music can get your creative juices flowing. And pastors should never be too “reverend” to listen and learn.

Wisdom from Jay-Z

Towards the end of his smash hit “Izzo,” Jay-Z said:

…’the try’ and ‘the fail’
the two things I hate…”

I know, I get on people when they take a Bible verse out of context, yet here I am quoting half a bar. Allow me to exegete.

It’s like in The Empire Stikes Back when Luke is using his Jedi mind power to lift his spaceship out of a miry bog. It seems impossible, but he tells Yoda he’ll try. Yoda instantly loses his patience, and admonishes the young warrior: “Do or do not. There is no ‘try!'”

Just wait till that "Blueprint 3" album drops, son.
Just wait till that "Blueprint 3" album drops, son.

The “try” is rarely ever good enough. “Trying” to do something means that if it doesn’t work after one attempt, you have fulfilled your obligation. That gets you nowhere. There was once a guy who “tried” for years to quit smoking. Once he was diagnosed with throat cancer, he stopped trying and just quit.

I have found that when I “try” to accomplish something, the odds are about 50/50. When I decide something has to happen, it always happens, and I know I’m not alone. You ever have to get something done? You get it done. The first person behind a counter or on the phone who tells you it won’t be possible, you practically don’t even hear them. You tell them, “no, no, I have to get this done today. Let me talk to someone who can help me.” Somehow, when you employ that level of resolve, you manage to get the job done, and it’s always on time.

Apply that unadulterated hustle to your one of a kind talent, and you too can move 20 million units, or mountains, or whatever it is you choose to move.

“H to the Izzo
V to the Izz-A
What else can I say about dude?
I gets busy.”

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma

This book was a joy to read. I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I was able to get through the 198 pages in a weekend. It helped that Little Seth happened to take 2 uncommonly long naps on Saturday and Sunday–maybe the universe really is conspiring to shower me with blessings….

Long story short: A hard-charging, successful lawyer has a heart attack in the court room. It’s just a symptom of a bigger problem: he eats bad, drinks and smokes, barely sleeps, works constantly, etc. After the heart attack, he quits his practice, sells his ferrari, mansion, and beach house, and treks to India. There, he meets a tribe in the Himalayas that leads him to enlightenment. He comes back to the states and teaches whoever will listen–specifically his law protege– all he has learned.

The subtitle is “A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams and Reaching Your Destiny.” The book has many of the qualities that make a good novel like a first page that draws you right in, wealthy, successful characters, and a journey half way around the world for what’s important.

At the same time, it has the makings of a solid self-help book: it’s not too long, there were practical steps the reader can take toward improvement, and plenty of quotes from the likes of Gandhi, Einstein, and Emerson.

I like to read personal development books because they elucidate the concepts that are necessary for success, peace of mind, prosperity, fulfillment, and vitality. These ideas are fundamental–everyone wants to be happy.

The only problem with fundamentals is that there’s nothing really new about them. Whenever I’m deciding whether or not to buy a book, I open to a few random pages and read a few random paragraphs. When I did this to The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, I concluded: “Do I need another book to tell me that it’s important to laugh, or that everything that happens to us is the result of our thoughts, or that exercise and time spent in nature are important, and that I should be writing goals down?”

Well, I believe those things to be true, but I don’t really live by them as much as I like to. So, I decided to cop it. There are some excellent points in it, including the idea that we have to re-read the best books continuously. Whether it’s the Bible or How To Win Friends and Influence People, if a book moves you, you should go back and read it over periodically. The core of Monk might be the “10 Rituals For Radiant Living.”

“If you continue to apply them,” The monk says, “you are bound to reach a state of perfect health, limitless energy, lasting happiness and peace of mind. Ultimately, you will reach your divine destiny–for this is your birthright.” All you have to do is:

1. Spend at least 15 minutes a day in silence.

2. Spend at least 5 hours a week engaged in rigorous physical activity.

3. Eat as much raw food as possible and less and less of everything else.

4. Continue to read and study enriching books, articles, and blogs.

5. At the end of the day, reflect on all you did and decide what you can do better tomorrow.

6. Wake up with the sun.

7. Listen to good music often.

8. Have at least one mantra you repeat 100 times a day to improve your self-image.

9. Take steps daily to improve your character, like being kinder and more honest.

10. Keep life simple by focusing on things that are most important.

Some of those things aren’t easy. In fact, doing all 10 of those everyday would probably lead to some suffering. But, they can all be turned into habits after sticking with them for a few weeks. Besides, if your life isn’t moving in the direction of those 10 rituals, you’re almost certainly suffering anyway. Like Jim Rohn says, the pain of discipline is never as bad as the pain of regret, so go for it.

Most importantly, know that you can achieve whatever your imagination can dream up and much more.

Snakes Don’t Blink

That was the title of my last sermon, lifted from Luke 10:19. Top ten highlights:

1. Snakes represent evil and deception in the Bible, from the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the visions of war in Revelation.

2. The word serpent is from a Latin verb that means “slither, creep, approach imperceptibly.”

3. Even if you’ve never been bitten in the leg by a real snake, you’ve probably been stabbed in the back by someone or something that was not what it appeared to be.

4. Snakes can’t be reasoned or negotiated with; they don’t have ears.

5. Snakes can’t be easily run away from. In the time it takes you to blink, a snake can strike out, bite you, and recoil back to it’s original position.

6. Snakes always consume their prey head first. They know once they have the head, the rest of the body follows without difficulty.

7. Like Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane, a dynamic plan of action will come to you once you really decide “Enough is enough!”

8. Jesus was certainly against cruelty to animals, yet he gave his disciples authority to trample snakes. He was talking about the metaphorical snakes we face, not necessarily reptiles.

9. The best way to kill a snake is to step on it without hesitation.

10. Snakes don’t blink. They never take their eyes off of what they want until they get it, and neither should we.

Astrology and the Bible

Horoscopes, the zodiac, and other aspects of astrology are frowned upon by certain Christians. For the most part, these are the same believers who have a problem with reincarnation, meditation,  sex, positive thinking, freemasonry, hip-hop music, and a lot of other things that happen to be a vital part of my spiritual journey.

There are a lot of God-fearing people out there who seriously believe that astrology and Christianity don’t mix. Some of them will completely ignore or shun any talk about horoscopes, and that’s a shame. Even worse still are the followers who have found some truth in what is known about the stars, but they feel guilty about indulging because someone somewhere told them that Christians don’t read horoscopes.

“Christians don’t read horoscopes.” Even to me, that phrase sounds like the type of thing we’re all supposed to believe, even though it’s not true. Christians (maybe not all, but many) read horoscopes everyday. In fact, it has been my experience that atheists tend to be more skeptical about things like astrology and miracles, while those who believe in an all-powerful, all-wise God know that all things are possible.

It doesn’t take years of theological study to figure out that the universe and planets were created by God, so to the extent that there is a zodiac, it is God’s zodiac. Check out Genesis 1:14-“And God said, Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years.” Right on the first page of the Bible, God made the heavenly bodies so that we could predict the seasons as they come.

In the New Testament (Luke 21:25), Jesus says that we will know that things are coming to an end because “there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars.” Astrology is the study of signs in the sun, moon, and stars. When Jesus was born, the wise men knew it was happening because they saw it in the stars. They even followed a star to be able to determine where they could find him. They had knowledge of astrology.

Outside of the Bible, people from all over the world have understood that the position of the planets in our solar system means something. It has taken thousands of years of observation to pick up on some of these trends. After pooling all that information, now we know a lot.

Even from a purely scientific frame of reference, we know that everything is connected. The more a thing weighs and the closer it is to you, the more impact it has on you. The planets in our solar system are the closest, biggest things to us on Earth, and the meaning of their location forms the basis of a horoscope.

Mind you, all astrologers are not created equal, but then again, neither are all pastors. I’ve heard some bad sermons and read some inaccurate horoscopes. Despite those weak links in the chain, I still know God is good.

If you felt any guilt about believing that your sign tells you things about yourself, I hope I have helped you get past that. If you have a comment (even a disagreement), there is nothing but space and opportunity below to air it out.