About Me

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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

You Won't Believe What Happened at Work Today

Matthew 4:12-23
"You Won't Believe What Happened at Work Today"

So, our family was gathered together around the TV, something which happens less & less often. We were watching the start of the new season of American Idol. We agreed that we enjoy the early rounds much more than the later. In the later rounds, the contestants are all being coached and polished into the next great superstars, like Carrie Underwood or Phillip Phillips. Late in the season Idol's just a matter of who's slightly better enough to be voted #1 by Americans with phones and computers. But in the early rounds, it's like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. Some are diamonds in the rough, and some are just rough. In a way, I really miss Simon, especially when someone with as much vocal talent as I have tries singing "House of the Rising Sun." Simon was so honest. "That was absolute rubbish! Please do not even whistle a tune ever again!" The judges now are so nice. And I think the producers might be weeding out the embarrassingly awful. Still, hope springs eternal for another "Pants on the Ground."

The other complaint I have about American Idol is that it seems to take forever. It's not suspenseful; it's just long. The show would be so different if on the first night of competition, Ryan Seacrest walked through the convention center, looked around for a minute and pointed out a winner without ever hearing them sing. "You. And for second place, you. OK, that's good. Everybody else can go home now."

OK, I know that's probably not the best idea. The choice criterion isn't, you're the best. It's not, you're pretty good. It's not, you've got some potential. It's not, at least you're better than him. It's not, well, you're not rubbish. The criterion for choosing the next winner is, you'll do.

How many people do you think would watch that? How many viewers would the show catch? What's the point?

Today's scripture is about Jesus selecting the first disciples. And his selection process is unspectacular. No combines, no playoffs, no dance-offs, no sing-offs. No preach-offs. No judging panel. No nationwide voting. No Idol-ish winner, no heartbroken losers. The closer I look at this passage, the more convinced I get that the Bible's intentionally showing the disciple-picking process as almost totally random. Jesus just walks through the convention center, or along the seashore, and said, "You'll do."

That is SO opposite the way we pick anything. Job applicants, college students, spouses, singing sensations… cars, homes… fresh produce. All our important choices involve a process of elimination. Pick the best of the bunch, the highest rated in Consumer Reports, the most stars on Amazon. It's almost impossible for us to think that Jesus would choose his followers, his disciples, any other way.

Good news for the disciples: Jesus just isn't that picky. Good news for us: he still isn't. As far as we're concerned, two of the most merciful words we'll ever hear are: "You'll do."

"…he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him."

I always wonder how the discussion went when Zebedee got home. 
Mrs. Z says, "Evening, dear. How was your day?"
And Zeb says, "Honey, you won't believe what happened at work today."

Now. Other preachers, including younger versions of myself, have spoken about the calling of the fishermen. And because preachers are also men and women who apply the selection standards of American Idol to almost all our life choices, especially important ones, we aren't satisfied with the bare bones of the Bible. It's too simple. It's too random. So we make up explanations why the disciples just walked away from their nets, their jobs, their families.

Explanation #1. Charm. Jesus had a magnetic personality. Jesus was so charismatic that his call was irresistible. It was as if he hypnotized them, or put a magic spell on them. Or summoned forth the strength of Almighty God's will upon them. 

Explanation #2. Marketing. He had the world's best slogan: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Pure genius. That's even better than, "I've fallen and I can't get up!"

Explanation #3. Condensed disciples. Time was short and parchment was expensive, so the Bible just gives us the Reader's Digest version of what happened. The disciples had been sneaking off on their lunch hours for weeks to hear Jesus preach. So when he walked by, they already had their bags packed and were ready to go.

Explanation #4. Job dissatisfaction. They hated fishing so much even preaching looked better.

Explanation #5. Fate. The stereotypical Presbyterian answer: it was *predestined.*

The real explanation could be any or all of the above. Or something else. You might have a better idea. It's not the explanation itself; it's that we hunt for explanations. Any reason is better than no reason. We hate irrational actions. Even good ones make us suspicious. "Honey, the boys say they're leaving us and quitting their jobs to follow Jesus. Today." Now, normally, following Jesus is a good thing, right? But to literally drop your responsibilities and to treat your mom and dad that way? That's not right. Something's up.

The disciples and their choices are one thing. The truly bothersome person in all this, I think, is Jesus. That Jesus might really just be walking along the shore, and call out to some arbitrary guys at work strains our faith in the power of the Almighty Lord. We think, He must have had some sort of vetting process. But maybe not. We think, Maybe he could see the future. But maybe not. Maybe he was confident he could do amazing things with even the least-talented contestants. But maybe not.

It doesn't make sense that Jesus, the Lord of Lords, would so casually pick anyone less than the finest. The Son of God is worthy of our best and worthy of THE best of the best of followers. We think of the Son of God and we think he had to be irresistible. He had to be undeniable. He had to be incontestable. 

But that would be turning Jesus into an idol. The Bible itself testifies that Jesus's own disciples denied him. One betrayed him. All of them deserted him. A population refused him. A crowd crucified him. 

And it's not just the people in the Bible. We vote against Jesus, whenever it's more expedient to do otherwise. We deny Jesus, whenever a more attractive idea comes along. We can put him on trial. We can set him aside, erase him from consideration. The disciples weren't finalists; they were more like preliminaries, better than some, not as talented as others. Just random, everyday people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, the day Jesus went for a walk by the sea.

The amazingly good news in this is that Jesus picks followers not because they're the best, but because they're present. He picks people who might have said no to him in the past, but who will surely say no to him sometime in the future, not because they're bad, but because followers do. Jesus picks people he knows are going to mess up. He picks people he knows are a mess. He doesn't care about picking idols; he picks people. Real people. Men, women, kids and seniors. People who rush headlong into stuff they're not ready for and people who can't remember why they came into a room. He doesn't pick people who line up at a competition. He picks people who are doing whatever work they normally do in a regular day. He looks around and people like you and says, "You'll do. Now, come, follow me."


I don't want to crush anyone's dreams. But the odds of you winning American Idol are not good. But the odds of Jesus picking you to be his follower, the odds of Jesus choosing you to do something for him, something in his name, something randomly kind and extra-ordinarily merciful? Those odds are pretty good. You may not be the most talented person on the face of the earth, but in the eyes of Jesus, you'll do.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

How to Find This Season’s Savior (redux)

2014-01-19 John 1:29-37

How to Find This Season's Savior

…he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!…."

So, we're 19 days into 2014. At the start of a new year, people look to see a new savior coming down the road. 

(Not a big Savior with a capital S. But a smaller savior. A savior lite. A more seasonal savior.)

2014's going to be different. The new year's different because I have a new… diet plan, a new workout, a new tablet computer that I will learn to work before 2015, a new Bible app, a new prescription, a new, hip look, a new hip: Look! Here is the (little) lamb of God that takes away the pounds, problems, and peccadilloes of the past year, and if I don't like it, I can always swap it for a new-new.

As a city with a university who has seen four football coaches in slightly more years, we have a special sympathy for seasonal saviors and the people who cry out for them. "Here is the lamb of God who will take away the bowl disappointments." Or else. Those shiny little lambs of God turn into roasted goats real fast. 

And that's not even counting assistant coaches. Even Nick Saban's looking for a savior. Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback Coach at the University of Alabama. Lord have mercy. Even God commented on that one. On Twitter last week, the Tweet of God (TM) said, "If Lane Kiffin keeps failing upwards like this, he's going to end up with MY job."

Whether it's a new coach, or a new financial advisor, or a new self-help guru, or a new medication, we look for that person who's going to be the champion of a new year. Or maybe we don't expect to be The Number One, but we do want to know we're followers of the right one, the right savior, whoever or whatever that is, right at this moment.

At the start of a new year, or new season, the future is bright. Maybe the resolutions will bring change that sticks. Or maybe not. Seasons change. And there's always a new seasonal savior coming down the road.


People look for saviors. Maybe that's because we're always coming off a losing season. Or not as good a season as the mental boosters wanted. Or always trying to get closer to the championship ring. That's just human nature. We're always shopping for this season's savior. 

It was surely true 2000 years ago, when John the Baptist stood on the side of the road and pointed to Jesus. "Here is THE Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"

And the people said, "Right. Heard that one before." 

How do you get people - no, how do you get yourself looking past the seasons of life to see a life of seasons? Because Jesus is not going to move on because YOU'VE had a losing season. He's a capital S Savior for life. You don't want to be so near-sighted that you miss him.


Last week, we read about John baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan. But apparently there was an opening for Street Corner Preacher and John got the promotion. John the Baptist is now John Who Stands On The Roadside and Points and Shouts At Jesus. Much bigger title. John has become a specialist. He found The One. Or perhaps it's more right to say The One found him and pulled him out of the water and plopped him down in the street.

Jesus walks by and John proclaims, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." 

And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

Please note that John is very self-aware. He openly says that he wasn't out there baptizing in search of a savior. He wasn't trying to figure it out. "Nope. This isn't the one. Next!" According to John, he was just doing his job when God opened the heavens and said, "This is my beloved Son." 

Note also that in his self-awareness, John is very clear that he himself is not the Savior. "This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him...." John doesn't claim any personal stardom. He never confuses himself with Jesus.

I don't know about you, but I've never done anything as important to The Almighty as scoring a touchdown or winning a big football game. No offense to the players who thank God, but hearing them talk, you'd think God had nothing more important on his schedule than making sure the right team gets the victories. No one ever thanks God for a fumble. 

John the Baptizer turned Street Corner Preacher bends over backward - and that's not easy - to shout out a disclaimer that's almost as long as his proclamation. 

"Warning: Recognition of Jesus may cause certain side effects like self-promotion, confusion, and feelings of superiority."

John is the first to say, just because you've FOUND Jesus doesn't mean you ARE Jesus.

Good thing nobody ever does that.

Being a professional Jesus-pointer myself, I can testify how one of the greatest temptations is getting some new insight and thinking, "I'll bet I'm the first person to ever know that. I should write a book." "Look: Attendance is up. God must really like us." Maybe God's secretly rooting for the Presbyterian team. (I wish God wasn't so good at keeping secrets.)

Little improvements in the standings are not to be confused with the One who stands by us. Highs and lows are not to be mistaken the One who remains the same throughout our winning and losing seasons. John proclaimed Jesus. Not himself. And he was clear on that.


Speaking of delusional insights that I think are uniquely God-given... I noticed something new about this scripture. I saw it for the first time last week, not because God gave me a message, but because I don't often have time to read the Bible closely. Scripture is the Living Word and I'm usually too busy checking my email to get that.

Anyway, I noticed that Street-Preacher John isn't that successful. At least not immediately. He's standing there on the roadside with HIS disciples when Jesus passes by. And he proclaims. "Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" 

And nothing happens.

So the next day, he's standing there again, with his team of disciples, and he repeats his message. "Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." 

This time, scripture says, the two disciples heard him and they followed Jesus.

You say, what's the big deal about that? Maybe it just took a day for the disciples to make up their minds.

First, John had two - count 'em - two disciples. Not exactly an Osteen-size crowd. Second, the Bible tends to compress space and time. Remember how Genesis says God formed the world in six days and took a break on the seventh? Two days in the Bible can be a long time. The Bible is notorious for making things that could be taken literally into symbolism. Who knows how many earth days it took John's measly two disciples to make up their minds? Who knows how many times John had to say, "Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," before someone actually listened? If people did what preachers tell them we'd have no need for church. 

But here's what I find to be the most amazing thing. If he had to say his words once, twice, or a hundred times, John didn't cheapen his message in order to make the sale. He didn't say, "Here is the lamb of God... who will make you thinner, smarter, happier, and will show you how to live forever." That's because John wasn't trying to save anyone with Jesus. John wasn't a salesman. He was just telling one or two or whoever might listen what he knew to be the truth. And truth takes time.


I love those AT&T commercials where the guy's sitting with all the kids around him. He asks, "What's better? Faster or slower?" And all the kids yell, "Faster!" In the GEICO commercials, the pig in the blanket's showing the guy how his app tells him in real time how his claims are doing. If you're buying paper towels, you want the quicker picker-upper. If you're injured in an accident you want the lawyers who'll come to you before you even get out of the car. If you're hiring a football coach, you might give him one bowl-less rebuilding season, but time and boosters are waiting. Faster is always better.

If John had been a salesman, he might have been replaced. If God was sending a seasonal savior with an expiration date, John might have cheapened his message with promises of speedier heartburn relief. But no. The message stayed the same. "Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." No promises of when. No explanation of how. No restrictions applied. No return date implied.


People might say otherwise about themselves, but the truth is, if you're living, it's always a rebuilding season. And sure, some short-term saviors might help you kick it into gear. But no matter how well or how poorly your season goes, you're constantly rebuilding. We're all constantly looking to see what - and who's - coming down the road. Is it a savior? Or is it a slick sales job? Is it an enemy of your body, heart, or soul? It's hard to tell if you're only looking at one season.

So. As 2014 begins, John the Baptist turned street preacher lays it out another time, another day. He proclaims for you and for me, the same old thing he's been proclaiming since he started. "Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin world." And it's not you. It's not me. It's not a quick fix. And it's not cheap. 

In fact, it's not even an It. Rather a person. A human being. A man who was born like anybody else, who taught some things, and who showed some things, even in death. A person who is a savior in every season.