The Faulty Formula: How The ‘Return To God’ Sermon Isn’t About God

The formula is now concretized to the point that it takes almost no imagination to preach or teach the “return to God” sermon. Here’s how it goes (as if I need to explain it to you): 1. The world/culture/country is in terrible shape. 2. Here are all the aspects where the world/culture/country are out-of-whack. 3. It didn’t use to be this way when I was a kid. We used to have a better world/culture/country. 4. Here’s a list of all the people responsible for the shoddy state of contemporary world/culture/country. 5. The only way to fix it is for our world/culture/country to “return to God” (which, just coincidentally, coincides with “the way things used to be when I was a kid”).

You’ve heard this sermon? If not, I can send you some URL’s. As a matter of fact, my ears were recently assaulted by a sermon by someone stating when he grew up he didn’t know any gay people (and no, it was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).

One reason you’ve heard this sermon before is because nearly every motivator is deployed. First, selective nostalgia drawn from fuzzy memories — which all memories are — are employed as the ideal world. Second, disdain for cultural phenomenons we dislike or don’t understand, are positioned as evil on the basis of our own lack of understanding. Third, a clearly identified enemy (which is never the hearer, but always “those people”) is at fault. And finally, the power of God is offered as the magic wand for everything the speaker dislikes.

Without reflection, this sounds like a pretty good homily. In fact, in certain circles, this sermon formula produces a defined and predictable response: standing ovations. After all, who doesn’t have a fairly good list of things they wish are different about our world? I do. And what a relief to know that if enough of us performed the right religious dance steps everything would return to the way we think we remember it.

But there’s a problem: This sermon formula mocks God.

We Should Have Learned This Already

In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are fighting their archenemies, the Philistines. We use the word Philistine as an insult, the truth is they were an advanced nation whose chief business was metal-work. That means the Israelites were fighting with sticks and stones against an army using swords and spears.

[In those days, the Philistines warred against Israel,] and the warriors of Israel went out to fight them. They camped at Ebenezer while the Philistine forces made camp at Aphek. The Philistines lined up against Israel; and when they advanced, they defeated Israel, killing about 4,000 of Israel’s warriors on the battlefield. 1 Samuel 4:1b–2

The Israelites go out to war and get CRUSHED! In the aftermath, the generals get together to recalibrate.

What went wrong? They are Israel, right? They’ve had a long history of going to war and winning. They conquered the Egyptians. God was with them. They know about all the conquests when Joshua led them.

And it’s then they remember. They went out to fight the Philistines without the Ark of The Covenant.

Remember the ark? Or at least the movie? For Israel, having the ark means having God. In all the details of the ark, we need to remember; it was literally believed that God sat, enthroned, on the two angels on the top of the ark. It was the physically manifestation of God. And the Israelites had forgotten it.

So this is what they say:

Elders: Why has the Eternal One let us be defeated by the Philistines today? Tomorrow, let us take His covenant chest from Shiloh and carry it before us into battle, so that the chest may be among us and save us from the power of the Philistines.

So the people sent messengers to Shiloh and brought back the covenant chest of the Eternal One, Commander of heavenly armies, who is enthroned between the winged guardians. 1 Samuel 4:3–4

“I know where we failed,” they reason. ”We forgot about God. If this nation will just go and get the Ark we’ll be okay.”

The Philistines had metal. The Israelites had the ark.

The Israelites believe, “the reason our nation is failing is because we’ve forgotten about God.” But that’s an easy fix. Just go get God. Get the ark and everything will be fine.

And that’s what they do.

The Problem Continues

But there’s a problem. The Israelites take the ark into battle and get beat worse with the ark than without the ark.

So the Philistines stood their ground and fought and won a great victory. The people of Israel were crushed, and the soldiers fled from the field of battle back to their homes. It was a horrible slaughter, with the Israelites losing 30,000 foot soldiers.

But more importantly, they lost the covenant chest of the True God. The Philistines captured the chest, and Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed. 2 Samuel 4:10–11

The first time they lost 4,000 soldiers. The second time, they lost 30,000, including, the priest, Eli’s sons.

When they go back and tell Eli that the army lost, that his two sons are dead, and the ark has been captured (you’re going to think I made this up) Eli falls over backward, breaks his neck, and dies because, as the Bible says, “he was an old man and heavy.”

Not only that, Eli’s pregnant daughter-in-law is so stunned by the news that she goes into premature labor and gives birth right before she dies. But before she dies, she instructs the midwife to name the child, “Ichabod,” which means “the glory of God has departed from Israel.”

What’s The Deal?

Israel must be asking, “What’s the deal God? Has this all been a lie? Because I’m pretty sure that I read in the scriptures that if our nation would turn to you; if we would put you in the center then everything would be good, that you’d bless us. That’s the memo I got. Because I thought the problem with our nation was that we had forgotten you, but when we let you lead us suddenly we’re orchestrating 30,000 military funerals.”

After the slaughter, the Philistines take the ark and place it in the temple of their god, Dagon. Since they believed Dagon had defeated YHWY, they placed the ark at the feet of Dagon and had a celebration. The next morning, though, they went into the temple to discover Dagon had fallen on his face before YHWH. Face down is a position of worship.

The priests of Dagon dust-off Dagon and prop him up and had another celebration. Well nighttime comes again and with YHWH left with Dagon, the same thing happens. Only this time, when the priests of Dagon enter, they find that Dagon’s hands and head appear to be severed and the rest of Dagon is bowing down.

And then YHWY gets serious.

The hand of the Eternal One came down hard with punishment on the people of Ashdod while the covenant chest rested there. He ravaged the people of Ashdod and the surrounding territory and struck them with swollen, painful growths like tumors. When the people of Ashdod saw how they were cursed, they said,

People of Ashdod: We can’t let the chest of the True God of Israel remain here because their God continues to punish us and our god Dagon. 1 Samuel 5:6–7

Ok, so you know sometimes Bible translators clean things up to makes more comfortable. A better connotation for “tumors,” might be that God gave The Philistines something like “hemorrhoids.” The KJV said they had the them in “their secret places.”

Well, you wouldn’t like that and neither do the people of Ashdod. They call a town meeting and decide to send the ark to Gath. When the ark gets to Gath, the same thing happens and the people of Gath decide to send it to Ekron, but the folks over in Ekron have heard about all this and they won’t even let the ark enter their city gates.

So the Philistine leaders come up with a plan.

They build a cart and hitch it to two cows who’ve never been yoked before and point the cows in the direction of Israel. And, the cows march the ark all the back to Israel.

God Will Not Be Mocked

You’ve got two groups of people that God is teaching the same thing: God will not be mocked.

It’s easy to see how the Philistines mock God. They don’t worship YHWH. They worship Dagon! And when they conquer Israel, Dagon has won and they mock God, placing the ark below Dagon . They want YHWY to yield to their god, their way of life.

What’s not as easy to see is that Israel, the people of God, want the exact same thing.

Do you see what they did?

Israel thought God existed to created the nation they wanted. When the Israelites wanted particular outcomes for their nation, they expected God to deliver their desires. Just give nod to God and everything will be okay.

We still do this?

Here’s how it typically works out: We want one thing (for our world/culture/country) and we trick ourselves into believing it’s God we’re after when it’s really the world/culture/country we’ve fetishized.

The Israelite version of mocking God, and perhaps our’s too, looks like this: We want victory for our nation and to secure our borders. We want to win a war and maintain a strong economy, as well. So when those desires come under threat we decide, “let’s return to God.”

The Israelites, and maybe us too, decided their nationalistic interest were at stake, their lifestyle was at stake, and it was then that God became mighty important.They said “I want God,” but we the really wanted was a useful God.

Since I’ve kinda taken the long way round to this point, I’ll just say it clearly: If you’re calling on God because you want certain things for your world/culture/country, you’re doing it wrong!

A Quick Story

Think of it this way. I have two daughters. When either of them gets sick and I call a friend, Terry, who is a M.D (also because I’m cheap and wanna save money on an office visit). Terry, can be helpful. I love him, but I’m not calling because I’m concerned about Terry. I’m calling for Terry’s help. I’m concerned about my kids.

The return to God sermon formula works, in part, because we are all so naturally selfish, but it’s also easy because Jesus goes around saying things like, “I’m the great physician” and we think that means we’ve got God on speed dial.

But the same God who sent “the great physician,” also said, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me,” and that includes the world/culture/country that you really, really want.

God is not our individual, communal, or national puppet. God is not a lever to pull to when we want America to return to Leave It Beaver.

If that’s the world you want, it’s not God you want to return to.

Take My Sermons, Please

The news slipped by me as I was busy living my life, but apparently the city of Houston subpoenaed sermons from some local pastors. I ministered in Houston for almost 10-years. During that time, I preached a good many sermons, though, perhaps not many good ones. If the City of Houston wants them, have at it!

I don’t want those sermons and even with that being the case, I suppose no one is served as they collect dust.

According to Christian Post, Houston subpoenaed the sermons, ostensibly, as part of a lawsuit, wherein the city disallowed 35,000 signatures collected to force the city’s new HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) law to be placed on the ballot. HERO bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Part of the lawsuit alleges that opponents of HERO formed their opposition and were encouraged to sign the petition in churches at the urging of local pastors. This, in a bare bones sense, is what the brouhaha is about.

Houston says this is about the rule of law and making their case that a portion of the signatures are not valid. In effect, they are requesting sermons, along with e-mail and other communications, just like any attorney would request relevant documents in any case. Churches, on the other hand, are arguing for religious freedom and asserting the subpoenas are overly-broad. Even Houston Mayor, Annise Parker, a Democrat and lesbian agrees the subpoenas are outside the scope of the lawsuit.

So that’s the case, but I’m not interested in the case.

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Who Would Jesus Spank?

This guest post is from my friend, John Alan Turner. John is an Senior Fellow at The ScreamFree Institute, an author, pastor, and theologian. His most recent book is, “Crazy Stories, Sane God: Lessons from the Most Unexpected Places in the Bible.” 


I have a fundamental problem with most Christian parenting books…and articles…and blog posts for that matter. I am a Christian, and I am a parent. And I try to parent in a Christian manner. Heck, I’d even go so far as to say I’m an evangelical Christian parent, which means some of you are now tempted to immediately dismiss anything I have to say on this whole matter. But I’m willing to run that risk, because I want you to know that I’m not the kind of person who will dismiss biblical authority.

I believe the Bible is (and should be) the supreme source of truth for Christian beliefs and practices. I believe it was written by human authors, under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. I believe all the things about the Bible that you’re supposed to believe in order to be a card-carrying member of the Evangelical Theological Society. So, let’s just get that out of the way. Biblically speaking, I’m a conservative.

So, the reason I have a fundamental problem with most Christian parenting books is not because they insist on using Bible verses to form the basic framework of how we ought to engage in the grand exercise of childrearing. I’ve read a great many of these books, and some of them are excellent at unpacking the implications of ancient verses for our contemporary context. They are well-intentioned, well-reasoned, and biblically faithful.

And yet…the vast majority of these books make one glaring omission. Frankly, I hesitate to bring it up because once you see it you can’t unsee it. It may cause you to throw a few books out. It may change the way you think about parenting, and it may require you to recant some of the things you’ve posted on your Facebook timeline recently. Here’s my big problem with the way most Christians approach parenting:

They leave Jesus completely out of it.

We quote the Psalms and the Proverbs (even though the psalms and the proverbs we quote were written by men who appear to have been utterly disastrous fathers themselves). We may even quote some from the New Testament — perhaps Paul’s writings to the Colossians or the Ephesians (even though we’re pretty sure Paul didn’t have any children of his own). And I get it. I do. Wisdom is wisdom, and I believe the Holy Spirit inspired their words. It’s in the Bible, so it’s good and useful and all that.

But my goal in life isn’t simply to be more biblical; my goal in life is to become more like Jesus. That means that if the way I apply something I read in the Bible ends up making me behave less like Jesus, then I’m doing it wrong. I may be able to say I’m being biblical, but the Pharisees made their living like that — following the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of it. It might just be possible to be biblical without being Christlike. And that’s never a good thing.

Which brings us to a topic ripped from today’s headlines: spanking.

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Janay Rice In Your Pews: Churches & Domestic Violence

chelseaThis guest post is by my friend, Chelsie Sargent. Chelsie is a licensed professional counselor in Houston, TX. She worked at a non-profit counseling agency for 4 years before opening her own private practice in April 2011. Chelsie loves her husband Steve and prefers reading to movies, running to yoga, and slow dining experiences to fast food joints. Chelsie and Steve have one daughter – two and a half year old Cora June.

You can learn more about Chelsie and her work at


The following scenario happens in my office several times a year: 

A client (usually female, but not always) sits down on my couch (with hands wringing and nervously chattering on about the framed art hanging on my office walls or why I chose this particular shade of green to paint those walls). After a few pleasantries and exchanging confidentiality limits, I shift the conversation to the matters at hand and I ask, “So, why are you here today?” A story is shared, bits and broken pieces of the whole coming out at varying speeds. In this particular scenario, the dialogue usually begins this way:

Client: I never thought I would be in a situation where I would need to seek outside help.

Me: What do you mean by ‘outside help’?
Client: You know, like I never thought I would need to talk to a counselor about my marriage.
Me: How come?
Client: Because I had a good and happy marriage at one time. My husband loves me and for the most part takes very good care of me and the kids. You must understand, my husband is not like this all the time. He only gets like this when he is overworked, or tired, or stressed with finances, or…!
Me: Gets like what?
Client: Well, you know, he sometimes yells at me if I forget to turn off the sprinklers in the backyard. Or that one time he hit me after I told him his yelling hurt my feelings. Or when he threatened to hurt me or himself if I did not do X, Y, or Z better.
Me: How long has this abusive behavior been going on in your marriage?
(Long silence…)
Client: I would like to say this started just recently, but I think there were red flags while we were dating. I had no idea it would lead to all this.Red flags. Warnings. Heads up.

When I refer to a “red flag” I am referencing anything in the relationship that seems off base, or something that could be labeled as a small issue (emotional manipulation, name calling, yelling, pushing) but later turns into full-blown abuse.

For example – many women I’ve talked with who have been in a longterm abusive relationship say that at the start of dating, their partner was quite directive in what she wore, who she talked to and hung out with, or how she spent her hours when apart from each other. These red flags may have looked nonthreatening, or even like chivalrous protectiveness, but would, over time, morph into blatant control. She is silenced by him, she is shamed by him, because he has taken away her voice and crushed her spirit.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that, on average, it takes a woman seven times of leaving an abusive relationship and then coming back to it before she finally leaves the relationship for good. Why would an abused woman stay in such a situation? Why does it take someone so long to believe they are worth far more than what’s being impelled upon them, that they are precious and lovable, that they do not deserve to live in fear and isolation?

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Is Your Church Donald Sterling’s Instagram Dream?

Does your church directory look like Donald Sterling’s Dream Instagram?

Go ahead. Take a minute. Flip through it. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that 90% of churches are congregations made up of 95% of one, single race. Big or small, rich or poor, people tend to gravitate to people who look like, sound like, and act just like they do. It isn’t the OJ Trial or the murder of Trayvon Martin or even the election of a half-black President; the strongest indicator of race relations in America is the church. Well, it’s the church, plus backyard barbeques or girlfriends’ weekends and guys’ poker nights – the strongest indicator of racial relations is who we are with when we get to choose who to be with. When we get to pick who to spend our time with, we go all Donald Sterling, “let’s not hang out at the game together.”

Christians have known for a long time that Sunday morning at 10:00am is the most segregated hour of the week, but curiously, we do, or care, little about it.  In part, we don’t know what to do about race. There is a soothing lie, which we either collectively believe or have fallen under the mass delusion of. That lie? Culture and cultural differences are greater forces than the gospel.

When pressed to justify single race churches, the last standing line of defense is culture – that black-culture, white-culture, Latino-culture, or whatever are just sooooooooo different; worship styles and preaching styles are so varied; lifestyle issues are so contrasting that we cannot worship together regularly. And I rise to tell you that excuse is crap!

Forgive the inelegance of my language, but if you’re resting the head of your mostly segregated church on the illusion-producing pillow of “cultural differences” you are dangerously close to becoming a kind of Jim Jones Kool-Aid sipper accepting what you’re told without the worry of performing your own investigation type person.

Culture and cultural difference are a fig leaf covering our sinfully poor understanding of the gospel. Here’s why:

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