I just came home from speaking at the Liberate 2013 conference at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. I generally don’t like conferences and don’t much like speaking at them. A conference is just another meeting (albeit a big one). If I get to heaven and God calls a meeting or sponsors a conference, I’ll know I’m in the other place.

But this was different for a lot of reasons. One reason was the whiskey and cigars.

Whiskey and cigars????

Wait, wait…let me explain.

When one is a conference speaker, those who sponsor the conference will almost always give him or her a gift of a fruit basket, candy, special coffee, etc. It’s one of the perks of speaking at a conference. They think it lessens the pain. Anyway, that’s what happened at Liberate. When I checked into the hotel, there was a gift for me at the desk. It was heavier than most and made me wonder.

The clerk laughed and said, “Maybe it’s booze.”

“Are you crazy?” I responded. “I’m a preacher and this is a church conference. We don’t do booze.”

I was really curious to open the package. There was—and I’m not making this up—a bottle of 12-year-old whiskey and two fine cigars. 

Now before you jump to unfounded conclusions, try to remember that I’m a lifelong teetotaler and have never been able to get that stuff down (though I’ve tried). I do think there are some things that I would handle better drunk (conferences come to mind), but God has made it simply impossible for me to drink adult beverages. I think it’s a spiritual thing, given that all the males in my family tree were drunks who kept falling out of the tree. God broke that generational curse with me. 

Not only do I not drink alcohol, I don’t smoke cigars either. I’m a pipe smoker, and pipe smokers and cigar smokers rarely cross the other’s line.

Everybody knows that I’m a teetotaler and don’t smoke cigars. 

So why give me the gift? I think it was a statement. In the conference publicity for my session, they quoted me as saying that Christian freedom meant “you should live your life with such freedom that uptight Christians will doubt your salvation.” The people who organized the conference decided to take me seriously.

By the way, just so you know, the idea of offending uptight Christians didn’t come from me. It was from Martin Luther who wrote:

I believe that it has now become clear that it is not enough or in any sense “Christian” to preach the works, life and words of Christ… as if the knowledge of these would suffice for the conduct of life…and such teaching is childish and effeminate nonsense.

There are some who have no understanding to hear the truth of freedom and insist upon their goodness as means for salvation. These people you must resist, do the very opposite, and offend them boldly lest by their impious views they drag many with them into error. For the sake of liberty of the faith do other things which they regarded as the greatest of sins…use your freedom constantly and consistently in the sight of and despite the tyrants and stubborn so that they may learn that they are impious, that their law and works are of no avail for righteousness, and that they had no right to set them up.     

I didn’t drink the whiskey or smoke the cigars nor did the people at the conference expect me to. They wanted to tell me that this conference was different—man’s rules would bow before the radical grace of God. They wanted me to see they “got it” and wanted me to feel affirmed they did.

I did…and loved it. 

I told the conference (there were a whole lot of people and piles of young people) that the music wasn’t my kind of music, the worship was a bit much for an old Presbyterian, and I didn’t like conferences…but this time was a gift to this cynical, old preacher who is generally defending himself and trying to explain in order to keep from being “tarred and feathered.” The conference was marked by scholars and leaders (except me…I’m neither) who had found that because of the Cross, God isn’t angry and the Gospel is a message of radical freedom, infectious joy and surprising faithfulness to Christ.

During my time at the conference, I did an exposition of Matthew 12:1-14. (I am after all, despite the whiskey and cigars, a Bible teacher.) I don’t have time here to go into what I taught, but you’re familiar with the passage. Jesus’ disciples broke the Sabbath rules and the Pharisees went after them with condemnation. In fact, Matthew wrote, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”

Jesus told the critical Pharisees he was the “Lord of the Sabbath” and was greater than the temple itself. Not only that, he was the “writer of the rules.” He then took their eyes away from the rules of the Sabbath (the “whiskey” and “cigars”) and said that the real God “desires mercy, and not sacrifice.”

Now that’s a radical thought. During this conference, “mercy came running” to a whole bunch of needy sinners broken with guilt and shame. You should have heard the laughter…the laughter of the redeemed.

Destruction and Grace

I have a friend, Justin Holcomb, who is a former student. He just wrote a book on grace and we recently interviewed him on our talk show. We asked him where he first learned about grace. Justin said he learned it from his father. Then he told us this story.

When he was 7, the neighbors decided to move and put their house on the market. Justin snuck into the house, stopped up all the drains and turned on all the faucets, flooding the house and causing thousands of dollars of damage. Justin, of course, lied about his involvement. But that next week, Justin said, was horrible. He was eaten up with shame and guilt. He prayed that God would not let anybody find out and repeatedly asked God to forgive him. God answered the second prayer.

A neighbor told Justin’s father he had seen Justin go into the house and was sure that Justin had done the deed. Justin was out playing with his friends when his father came to the door and said he wanted to talk to him. Justin came in and sat down. His father asked, “Did you have anything to do with the destruction to our neighbor’s house?”

Justin told us that he lied once again and swore he had not been there and had not done anything wrong. Then his father said, “Justin, our neighbor saw you and the gig is up. I’m angry at you for what you did and I’m even more angry that you lied to me about it.”

Justin started crying and said he was so sorry. Then he said, “I’ve asked God to forgive me over and over again.”

“You asked God to forgive you?”

“Yes, every night.”

“Oh, that’s different,” his father said. “If you asked God to forgive you, you’re forgiven. Go out and play.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that Justin must have become the world’s worst juvenile delinquent. Not so. Just the opposite. Just as we’re “constrained by the love of Christ,” Justin was constrained by the love of his father. Justin is now a pastor telling others about another Father who sent his Son to take our sin that we might “go out and play.”

In that earlier text, in my mind’s eye, I can picture Peter putting the grains of wheat in his mouth on the Sabbath and noticing the Pharisees headed their way. “Uh-oh!” Peter would say to the others. “They look really ticked and we’re in trouble.”

Jesus said, “You eat. I’ll take care of it.”

He does, you know?

He asked me to remind you.