KOH2RVA: Day 252


It’s the Day of Pentecost, everyone! Get out the leaf blowers and flame throwers, because this is the day we celebrate the birthday of the church, that time when the Spirit came with a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and tongues of fire hovered over the heads of the believers (Acts 2:1-3).

But that was just the beginning.

Peter, filled with the Spirit, preached a fiery sermon, and at the end of the day 3,000 people had been added to the church. In the chapters that follow we hear how the apostles healed the sick, raised the dead, confronted the authorities, smashed through the barriers of prejudice, and carried the gospel to the ends of the earth.

So, I’m thinking…today is the Day of Pentecost. If what happened to the early church happens to us the Kingdom of Heaven will come to Richmond, Virginia. There will be no stopping it.

Which makes me wonder what’s stopping it now.

Is it us? Are we unwilling to let the Spirit take charge? Is that why we don’t wait for it and pray for it as those early disciples did? Today may be a good day to realize that if we try to bring in God’s Kingdom under our own power we will surely fail. But if we couple our efforts with the power of God, anything is possible. Just looked what happened in the early church. Eventually their critics began to say, “These people are turning the world upside down!”

Maybe soon they will say the same about us.

KOH2RVA: Day 156

On MissionOn Sunday I spent three hours with the Ministry Planning Team at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. We were trying to draft a mission, vision, and values statement for the church, something we’ve been working on for a while.

We were stuck on the “mission” piece.

What is it that we, as a church, are trying to do? Are we trying to bring heaven to earth? Are we trying to make disciples of every nation? Are we trying to be Jesus’ witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? Are we trying to save people from eternal damnation?

We looked at mission statements from Coca-Cola (“To refresh the world, to inspire moments of happiness and optimism, to create value and make a difference”) and Starbucks Coffee (“To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”). We talked about “aspiration” and wondered if our mission statement could be about something people really want, rather than just about something they ought to do. We thought we were getting close at one point, and then our conversation ricocheted off in another direction.

We’ve still got work to do.

But I woke up Monday morning thinking about our mission, and ended up writing the litany that’s printed below. It’s not our mission statement. It’s just Jim’s thoughts on a Monday morning. But I hope you will read it and let me know your thoughts. Does any part of it refresh you, or inspire you…or make you want a Coke? (smile).


Leader: Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

People: Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to that prayer.

Leader: Jesus knew what a big job that would be. He told his followers to go, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that he had commanded.

People: Let us never be content with making converts alone.

Leader: Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

People: We are sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.

Leader: Let us go in the grace of God, the love of the Lord Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

People: Amen.

For God so Loved the Church

Before I say another word, let me say that last night’s “Simple Gifts” concert at Richmond’s First Baptist Church was a musical love feast.  I sat there in my pew glowing like a light bulb, so joyful, so grateful, so proud of every person who participated.  As I wrote in my prayer journal this morning, “I think I fell in love with my congregation last night.”  Every man, woman, and child who sang or played became precious to me in a whole new way. 

I remember hearing one of my seminary professors say that you don’t become a pastor on the day you are installed at a new church.  You become the preacher, but not the pastor.  That can take months or years, and it doesn’t always happen.  But it happened for me last night.  I thought about those traditions where the minister is referred to as “Father.”  That’s how I felt: like a proud papa.

But now the concert is over, and all that’s left is those delicious memories and the sound of music still ringing in my ears.  Sunday’s coming, and this Sunday is the Day of Pentecost.  I was looking through some of my old files for inspiration and found these thoughts in a sermon preached in 2005 called, “For God so Loved the Church.”


On the Day of Pentecost, God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And here’s the wonderful thing about a spirit:  you can’t abuse it.  You can’t steal it, you can’t break it, you can’t nail it to a tree.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t damage or destroy. He had learned that if you give people the Ten Commandments, they will break them; if you give them the Promised Land, they will fight and kill each other over it; if you give them your one and only son, they will crucify him.  So on the Day of Pentecost God gave us a spirit—an unbreakable, un-ownable, un-killable Holy Spirit—and for two thousand years now that gift has survived unscathed.  Not that we don’t try to scathe it.  As I was working on this sermon I had a vision of people chasing after the Holy Spirit with brooms, baseball bats, butterfly nets, wooden boxes, running up and down the aisles of the church, jumping over pews in the balconies, trying to catch it, kill it, shut it up.  But it’s a spirit, not a thing.  You can’t contain it.  It got loose in the church on the Day of Pentecost and it’s still loose. 

Sometimes it gets into the preacher and he says things that make the church gasp.  Sometimes it gets into parishioners and they do things that are shockingly new.  No wonder people thought those first disciples were drunk when they saw the way they behaved, but Peter said, “No, this is just what the prophet Joel was talking about, that time when God’s spirit will be poured out on all people and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, 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.”  Do you hear what Peter is saying?  You can’t control this spirit.  You can’t shut it up in the Ark of the Covenant.  You can’t contain it behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies.  You can’t confine it to the rigid lines of the Apostle’s Creed.  You can’t limit it to the conclusions of the Council of Nicaea.  You can’t bind it between the leather covers of the Bible.  You can’t chain it to the pulpit of the medieval church.  You can’t sell it to get a single soul out of Purgatory.  You can’t nail it to the door of the Wittenberg Church.  You can’t close it up in the Westminster Confession.  You can’t shut it up in the Constitution and Bylaws.  This spirit is loose in the church.  It’s loose in the world!  It can get hold of almost anybody and cause them to do unusual things.

It got hold of Stephen in a way that eventually cost him his life.  It got hold of Philip in a way that led him to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch.  It got hold of Paul on the road to Damascus in a way that turned his life around.  It got hold of Peter on that rooftop in Joppa in a way that changed his mind about the Gentiles.  Read the whole of the Book of Acts and you will see the Holy Spirit smashing through one barrier after another—race, religion, nationality, geography—as the kingdom comes, God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It begins with the rush of a mighty wind and builds from there, until it begins twisting across the religious landscape like a tornado, smashing against the coastline of convention like a holy hurricane.  For God so loved the church he gave us something we couldn’t contain, and can’t contain still.  Who knows where this spirit will lead us in the days ahead?  Who knows where that mighty wind will blow?  I only know that on this day, the Day of Pentecost, as I draw a breath to blow out the candle on the birthday cake of the church, I make a wish that the wind of God will blow where it will, and that you and I will find the courage to follow.


How to Read the Bible

I don’t usually preach “how to” sermons, but I did on Sunday and several people have asked that I post my suggestions here.  And so, with acknowledgments to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (whose book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is one of the most helpful in my personal library), here they are:

  1. Start with a good translation of the Bible.  My personal preference is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which strives to be as inclusive as possible while maintaining a faithfulness to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic languages.  The HarperCollins Study Bible has almost as many notes as it has text, providing ready answers to most of my questions.  Fee and Stuart recommend Today’s New International Version (TNIV). 
  2. Get ready to read.  Sit at a desk or table where you can spread out a little, where you can open the Bible and also take notes.  Make sure you have adequate lighting and reading glasses if you need them (I seem to need them more and more).  If you are working on the passage I recommended for next Sunday (Luke 4:14-30), take some time to read the introduction to Luke in your study Bible.  Find out who Luke was, and when he wrote, and what he was trying to accomplish.  Find out how a Gospel is different from other kinds of literature in the Bible (history, poetry, prophecy, epistles, etc.) and think about why it makes a difference. 
  3. Say a prayer for illumination.  If it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical authors to write (and it was), it will be the Holy Spirit who helps us understand what they wrote.  Ask the Spirit to open your mind, heart, and soul to the truth of God’s word, and to teach you through the words of the text.  The meaning of a passage is often found not in the words themselves, but in that space between the words and the reader where the Spirit does its work.
  4. Read the text.  Read it several times, slowly.  Let it sink in.  Make sure you don’t add anything that isn’t there or subtract anything that is.  I talked to someone recently who said he was amazed at how Jesus just “disappeared” at the end of this reading from Luke 4.  “Disappeared?” I asked.  “Yeah!  He just–poof!–disappeared!”  Fortunately I had my Bible with me, and when we looked at the text it said that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).  That’s not really the same thing as “disappearing,” is it?
  5. Write down your questions.  If you are reading for understanding (and not just inspiration) you will have questions: What was that synagogue in Nazareth like?  Did they have other scrolls, or just the scroll of Isaiah?  Why did Jesus sit down to teach?  Where was his mother when all this happened?  Why did the people try to throw him off a cliff?  Write down all the questions you have.  Don’t hold back.  The Bible can take it (smile).
  6. Look up the answers.  This is when you consult a good Bible dictionary or a commentary.  Not before you’ve written down your questions—after.  Otherwise you will read answers to questions you have never asked, and yawn your way through the commentaries.  If you are looking for answers to your own questions, however, it can be like going on a treasure hunt: exciting.  I keep the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible on my shelves and try to keep a commentary on each book of the Bible written by the foremost scholar on that book.  Bible dictionaries and commentaries are always available in your church library, and many of them are excellent.

This is a different way to read the Bible than the devotional reading I do during my “quiet time.”  This is serious study.  But if you read the Bible this way from time to time I think you will find it richly rewarding, and maybe, like those people in yesterday’s Old Testament reading, you will go your way “to eat and drink…and make great rejoicing,” because you have understood the words of the Bible (Neh. 8:12).

And Other Funny Stories about Sudden Death

Hear or download this post (mp3 file – 3:35): And Other Funny Stories about Sudden Death

It’s David Powers’ fault.

David is our media minister.  He’s the one who produces the television program we broadcast on Channel 8 here in Richmond each Sunday morning at 11:00.  David often finds me after the 8:30 service and tells me how things looked from the control room and what might need to change before 11:00, but this Sunday I found him.  I wanted to ask him if the shirt I was wearing, the one with the blue and white stripes, had caused any problems for the camera.  Sometimes those small patterns do cause a problem.  The camera can’t decide which stripe to adjust for, the dark or the light, and you end up with a swirling pattern on the screen that is exactly what it looks like when a camera is trying to make up its mind. 

David said the shirt was fine but he wondered if I could stretch the sermon another five minutes or so.  Seems the 8:30 service had come in significantly under an hour and even with the baptism at the 11:00 service David wasn’t sure we would have enough “length” for the television broadcast.  So, I went back to my study to see if there was anything I could do.

revival3There was one place in the sermon where I was talking about old-fashioned revival-meeting evangelists and thought I could probably add a few light touches.  I could describe the evangelist for one thing (slicked-back hair, skinny tie knotted around his neck,  sweat beading on his forehead and spit flying from his mouth), and then I could share a few of those stories those evangelists always seem to tell (like the one about the young man who is almost persauded to follow Jesus–almost–but then leaves the church without making a decision and gets hit by a train on the way home). 

What I was aiming for was a caricature of the revival-meeting evangelist, someone whose features and manners were so exaggerated that you just had to laugh.  But nobody did.  They didn’t laugh at the story of the young man who got hit by a train, or the old man who dropped dead of a heart attack, or the young couple who had a head-on collision with a cattle truck (a cattle truck, for cryin’ out loud!).  I couldn’t understand it.  These were hilarious stories, side-splitting stories about sudden death, and yet everyone sat there in thoughtful silence, contemplating the brevity of life, and how quickly it can all come to an end.

That will teach me, I suppose, that what strikes me as funny in that hectic time between the 8:30 and 11:00 services is not necessarily so.  That’s why I try to build into the sermon-writing process ample time for reflection and reconsideration, because what seems perfect in one hour may not seem perfect in the next.  On the other hand if I’m too careful about the process I might hamper the work of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes you have to let go of the reins and enjoy the ride. 

Maybe that’s what happened this morning.  Maybe the Spirit took over.  Because eleven people came forward at the end of the service today, and some of them may have been thinking that they had better not wait until next week.  They had listened to the sermon.  They had heard the preacher say you need to make up your mind about Jesus and you need to do it soon.  Life is short, after all, and uncertain…

You never know when you might get hit by a train.