Month: March 2016

As prepared for delivery for Preaching course, BTSR, March 28, 2016

Luke 21:25-36

         One of my favorite movies of the last year is decidedly apocalyptic: Mad Max: Fury Road.  Like all the other movies in the Mad Max franchise, Fury Road takes place in a world that’s burned up.  The actual nature and events of the apocalypse are never explicitly stated and only hinted at.  But what is clear is that the biosphere has collapsed, probably because of human actions and human nature, and with it all of human civilization.  Humanity has re-entered a period of barbarity with marauding bands of “war boys,” actually, physically warped and broken by the fall of nature, fighting for whatever petty strongman can command their loyalty, in the process oppressing the vast majority of what is left of humanity.  This world is presented to us as simply the way the world is, there is no changing it, and you simply must do what you can to survive, including descending into barbarity yourself.

I don’t know about you, but this is not really a hopeful image!  And on first glance, the passage from Luke for today is the same.  Describing the world as coming apart at the seams.  The environment rebelling.  Cataclysm.  Death.  Not a pretty picture.

And yet there is Hope.  Just as we eventually see in Mad Max, this Hope is grounded in the immutable truth that the way things are is not the way they have to be.  As we celebrated yesterday, there is life after death.  There is Resurrection.

Christian hope, our hope, is grounded in the eschaton, in God’s final act in history.  It is the belief, the faith, that all is going to be put right in the end.  Not now, not next week, but in the end.  It is a hope predicated on the idea that we are not just moving randomly through the universe, but that we are and should be moving toward SOMETHING, that there is some goal towards which we are striving.  The scripture calls this end, this goal, the Kingdom of God.  Clarence Jordan, the 20th century Georgia Baptist prophet, called it the God Movement.

Earlier I read from the English Standard Version.  But now, I would like to read it again, this time from the Cotton Patch Gospels, the translation that Clarence Jordan did in the 1960s.  Jordan was a biblical Greek scholar with a PhD from Southern Seminary, and he translated a significant portion of the Greek text into South Georgia Vernacular.

         And there will be signs on the sun and the moon and the stars, and throughout the land there will be tension of races in confusion like the roaring of the boiling sea, with people passing out from fear and anticipation of what’s happening to civilization.  For the powers of the higher-ups will be shaken.  And then they’ll see the son of man leading a Movement with great strength and authority.  When these preliminary things happen, hold up your heads and throw back you shoulders, because your freedom is arriving. 

       And he told them a Comparison: “Take a look at the pear tree and all the other trees.  When they are far advanced, you can look and see for yourself that warm weather is here.  Likewise, when you see things like these happening, you can know that the God Movement is here.  I truly tell you that the present generation will not be gone before all these things happen.  Land and sky will pass away, but what I’m telling you won’t.  Check up on yourselves to see that you sensitivity isn’t dulled by fast living and drunkenness and worry over making a living. Otherwise, the time might catch you suddenly like a trap, for they’ll confront everybody in the world.  So stay on your toes all the time, praying that you’ll have the strength to break loose from that situation and to stand up and be counted for the Son of Man.

Let me quickly locate us in the Lucan narrative.  Jesus has just come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, entering on the back of a donkey that his disciples have “barrowed.”  Almost immediately after entering the city, Jesus makes his way to the Temple, and overwhelmed by the corruption and worldliness that has settled into this holy place, he drives the commercialism from the temple, causing quite a scene, flipping tables and scourging the moneychangers with a whip.  Then, he has the audacity to install himself in the temple as a teacher. Jesus overhears “some” (the scripture isn’t clear if these are his followers or others) talking about how “nice” the temple is, with its “beautiful stones” and “gifts dedicated to God.”  Jesus responds with a monologue about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.  For Luke and others of the first century CE, these were powerful symbols, representing the Jewish people.  Then Jesus gets to the passage we are looking at tonight.  Here the message shifts from simply being a message about and to the Jews, to being for the whole world, about not just the “pear trees” but “all the trees”.

The coming of the Son of Man is to be a global event, not simply one isolated within certain geographic parameters and the God Movement is open and welcoming of all people, not just some.

That the Kingdom of God is open to all who desire to participate, to not have it be some sort of exclusive little country club that requires you to be a certain race, or have a certain income, or to be privy to some specific and secret knowledge is something that we SHOULD rejoice in, something that we, as hopeful members of the God Movement, should find great comfort in.

But the true totality of the hope that we find in this passage can not be found in the particularities of the Kingdom.  These are certainly VERY important and we should not, in anyway, ignore them.  These particularities let us know what we should strive for.  They inform us as to how we should treat “the least of these.”  Nor is the totality of our hope intertwined with how to get there.  The answer to that is simple.  All through the Gospels when folks ask Jesus how the enter the Kingdom, he always gives some variation of the same answer “Love God.  Love Other.”  It is fairly straight forward.

So if our hope is not to be found only in the specifics of what the Kingdom is, nor if it is to be found in the how of entering the Kingdom, what is the base of our hope?  What possibly could be more important than the whats and the hows and the whos of the Kingdom?  Simply this: the Kingdom of God is at Hand!  Our hope rests and is grounded in the fact that the Kingdom is, and that no matter how crazy and screwy and hectic and weird the world gets, there is a promise of another way, that this crazy world with its boiling seas and fear and doubt and crosses and tombs is not the only way that things have to be!

Rejoice, the Kingdom of God is at hand!

Truly this is the “evangel,” the good news.  There is another way, a better way.  The ways of this world are not the only way that things have to be, the Kingdom is at hand.  The coming of God’s Kingdom is not simply to be understood as a single frozen moment, but as a continual, already and not yet,  unfolding, to be celebrated, day after day, month after month, year after year, always looking, always moving, always focusing, always striving forward toward and into God’s promise.

Rejoice, the Kingdom of God is at hand!

When things seem like they are spinning out of control, it is easy to be drawn inward, to retreat into our own little cliquish bubbles.  These are things that can encourage us to focus on the past, on the way that things have been, or our false memory of how they were.  But God’s promise, our Hope, is not rooted in what was, but in what can be!

Rejoice, the Kingdom of God is at hand!

I would like each and every one of us to stop for a second and really ask if we believe that there in another way?  Do we really and truly believe that the Kingdom of God is possible?  Or do we think the ways of the world, the ways that are “realistic,” the ways that are “safe,” the ways that “just are that way” are the only options?  I think that we would ALL have to admit, myself especially, that we don’t really believe that there is another way most of the time.  At least that we don’t live like there is another.  We go along to get along.  We buy into the lie that we should be scared of this or that or the other thing. We buy into systems of violence and oppression, themselves manifestations of the taint of sin and brokenness in the world. We buy the lie that this is just the way the World works.  Well maybe it is the way the world works, but it isn’t the way God’s Kingdom works!

Rejoice, the Kingdom of God is at hand!

Over the last year, we have been witness to extreme acts of violence and sin.  Just in the last week the whole world has been rocked by explosions and death.  However, we have also been witness to amazing, beautiful expressions of God’s Kingdom as well.  When ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya a little over a year ago, what we heard and saw from the Egyptian Christian community was not fear and violence or threats of it, but earnest, heartfelt prayers for their enemies and invitations to the terrorists to come and sit in their homes and break bread.  When Dylan Roof shot and killed 9 people at Mother Emanuel AME we saw not only from the families, but from the congregation and from the City of Charleston an amazing expression of the potential of God’s transforming grace.

Rejoice, the Kingdom of God is at hand!

But let us be clear.  These examples shine out to us because they are so rare, so exceptional.  We have been conditioned by the world to demand retribution, more violence, more pain, more brokenness.  But what if we didn’t?  What if we lived liked we truly believed that another way was possible?  What if we got out there and truly lived like we were the God Movement, like we were the Kingdom of God?  What if, while we were living this, we invited people to join us, to live this way together, in community?  What if we lived and shared the “evangel” like we actually believed it?  If this community, if every person in this room and in this seminary went out and did this, if we challenged our congregations to do this, if we challenged the dominant paradigm by simply refusing to acknowledge it and by living according to the way that God has called us to, we would radically change Richmond and Henrico and Petersburg and Chester, and Central Virginia within a year.  This is the promise of the Kingdom!  This is our Hope!

Rejoice, the Kingdom of God is at hand!

I am not saying that it would be easy, and in fact scripture tells us that it won’t.  Living into this radical hope has been known to the dangerous to your health.  The Christ we claim to follow preached that there was another way, and he was executed.  In this century, people such as Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero have preached this new way, and were killed for it.  The powers and principalities don’t want us to believe that there is another way.  They want to confine the God Movement to what is “safe” and “realistic” and to “the way that things are.”  But what if, instead of simply capitulating to the “way things are” instead of simply allowing business as usual to proceed in the temple, instead allowing our “sensitivity [to be] dulled by fast living and drunkenness and worry over making a living” what if instead of all of that, we lived in the expectant hope of the promise of God, in the promissory note of the resurrection?  What if the Kingdom of God is at hand?

Rejoice, the Kingdom of God is at hand!

May we live as if it is.

 

 

Preaching Sermons

This review was to fulfill a course requirement for my Preaching class at BTSR.

Keller, Timothy. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Viking, 2015.

Keller’s Preaching is a great, concise, winsome treatise on communicating the Word and Gospel of God.  Coming in at only 210 pages for the main text, this is certainly not a comprehensive step-by-step guide to preaching or a how-to on writing a sermon.  In fact, in the appendix (which this review does not cover), Keller states this very thing: “[t]his volume is far from a complete textbook on preaching…I’ve spent most of my time on why a certain kind of preaching is needed and what preaching looks like in principle and example.”  The main text is divided into three main sections, “Serving the Word,” “Preaching Christ to Culture,” and “In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power.”  Across these three sections Keller lays out his why and what of preaching, encouraging the reader to consider new insights, to compare Keller’s theology of preaching to her own, and finally to embrace the challenges to his own preaching that Keller may have posed.

There were several new insights that I gleaned from this text.  First was about the very nature of preaching itself.  I had always considered preaching to be that moment when an individual stepped to the front of a congregation and spoke, at length, about a particular biblical passage.  This was the totality of preaching for me.  However, in the introduction, Keller lays out three level of preaching.  The first level would be informally conveying and teaching the Word on to another.  The second level is concerned with what Keller identifies as being connected to what Paul describes as the gift of “speaking.”[1]  This is more formal than level 1 might not yet at what we might traditionally consider preaching.  Teaching, instructing, counseling, and evangelizing either one-on-one or to a group, might all fall under this level.[2] Finally, there is level 3, that form of preaching that we are the most aware of and think of most readily when thinking of “preaching.”  More formal than the other two, and for Keller explicitly about the exposition of the scripture.[3]  While Keller states that the book will be primarily concerned about the second and third levels of preaching, the fact that he has thought about preaching as something more than just the preaching event on Sunday morning is informative to me.  Keller has turned preaching from an event, and often a highly ritualized one, into a form of communication.  If this is the case, then the emphasis changes.  It is no longer about the ritual, it is about communicating the information that one has to communicate as clearly and efficiently as possible.

This leads to further insights gained.  If it is about communication and not ritual, then one has to think deeply about we the audience/congregation is to whom one is preaching.  This would lead to engaging culture and the social location of the audience/congregation in ways that might not have been previously considered.  All of the Part Two of the Preaching is taken up with this challenge.  Keller encourages the preacher to deeply and honestly engage with the culture.  He writes specifically about allowing the culture to exposit its own baseline narratives which the preacher can then subvert with an exposition of the Gospel and its values.[4]

In examining Keller’s theology of preaching, it is not entirely different from my own.  Both Keller and I believe that the primary purpose of preaching, at least at level 3, is to expound and exposit the Word of God.  Both of us agree that the text must be the beginning place for any preaching.  Keller and I also agree that all Christian preaching should be rooted in as well show the Gospel: “Every time you expound a Bible text, you are not finished unless you demonstrate how it shows us that we cannot save ourselves and that only Jesus can.”[5]  This is also tied to Keller’s idea that all of the Bible is telling the story of Jesus, that we have to put on Jesus tinted glasses when we are reading and preaching the text.  While I don’t think that this is a total one-for-one correlation, this is isn’t that different from the declaration in the Baptist Faith and Message (1963) that “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”[6]

There are challenges that Keller presents to my own preaching.  First, is this very idea of different levels of preaching.  If one takes this as a base for thinking about preaching, that thinking will change, as mentioned earlier.  If preaching is about communication and not ritual, then I, as a preacher, must thinking deeply and thoroughly about what it is that I am communicating and how I am communicating it.  Am I being clear?  Am I meeting people where they are in terms of the cultural narratives that have a hold on their lives.  We exactly is in my audience and how and I going to make sure that each of them hears the gospel every time I preach?

[1] Keller, 2.

[2] Keller, 3.

[3] Keller, 2.

[4] Keller, 115

[5] Keller, 48.

[6] Baptist Faith and Message, 1963

Books Preaching Review Tim Keller

Irishrepflag-GPO

Currently in Ireland they are celebrating the centennial of the Easter Rising.  On Easter Monday, 1916 a group of Irish patriots seized, by force, multiple sites around the City of Dublin. From the steps of the General Post Office, Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders, read aloud what is now known as the Easter Proclamation.  In doing, these rebels declared an Irish Republic.

Easter_Proclamation_of_1916

While the Rising ultimately failed, this is seen by many as the beginning of the the Anglo-Irish War that led, eventually, to partition and eventually a 26 county Republic in the South.  The 6 Counties of the North are still under British Rule, leaving the dream of Pease, Connolly and Thomas Clarke, a 32 County Republic, as yet unfulfilled.

Later that year, the poet W.B. Yeats, who had known personally many of the executed leaders of the rising, penned the poem “Easter, 1916.”  It ranks as one of my favorite pieces of poetry.

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS 1865–1939

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)


Notes:

The flags the one that was hoisted over the GPO on Easter Monday morning, 1916 when the combined force of Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen’s Army seized the building on O’Connell Street, making it the first HQ of the Irish Republic.

Note that the Proclamation was addressed to both “Irishmen and Irishwomen.”  In fact, women served, in uniform and in combat, during the rising.  Also, note Pearse’s initials: P.H.  His full name was Patrick Henry Pease, his mother naming him after the American Revolutionary figure and Patriot.

History Ireland

This is my sermon for the Good Friday service yesterday at Second Baptist, Petersburg, as prepared for delivery.

Text: John 19:13-42

All too often our world can seem a cruel and cold place.  It seems that death, destruction, and suffering have the upper hand, that these forces of brokenness and sin will win out and cover the Earth in darkness.

This week has given testimony to the power of death. Certainly since the last time we knelt at the foot of the cross we have had our fill of death, pain, violence, and hate.  We are in very real danger of being overwhelmed.  And in the midst of all that pain, we find ourselves kneeling, yet again, at the foot of the cross.

And as is so often the case, God is about to do something amazing, something profound, something unexpected.

It is easy for us, in the 21st century, to loose sight of what, exactly, crucifixion was and what it meant, before Jesus.  Crucifixion wasn’t about executing criminals and enemies of the state.  It was about totally humiliating them.  It was about subjecting those that challenged Rome and Caesar to a fate that was so humiliating that it was illegal to subject Roman Citizens to it.  It was cruelty for cruelty’s sake.  The thought that the true messiah could end up on a cross was so ridiculous, so outlandish, that it was laughable.  It was, as Paul put it just a few brief years later, foolishness.

We look back, through the lens of Christ and His work on Calvary, and we can see that Isaiah’s suffering servant is messiah.   But this wasn’t clear for those in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.  The conventional wisdom of Jesus’s day, the conventional wisdom of our day, tells them, tells us that messiahs come to set people free from the occupation, come to rule, come to win.  They don’t come to suffer and die humiliating deaths at the hands of the occupier.  You don’t win by being hung on a cross to die.

These are the thoughts that are running through the minds of Jesus’s followers during those long hours of Friday.  Their whole world is upside down.  Betrayal by one of their own.  Denial by the very man that seemed so rock solid in his commitment to Jesus.  And now, the one that was welcomed into the city just days earlier as a conquering hero is humiliated and dead.  Death, Violence, and Sin seem to have won.

It would be appropriate for us the call this day Black Friday, or Death Friday, or Mourning Friday as it is in German speaking counties.  Yet, we call it Good Friday.  We are able to do this because we have perspective.  Unlike those disciples 2000 years ago, we know what is coming.  We know that, to borrow a phrase, it’s Friday, but that Sunday is coming!

The death and the resurrection of Christ are two parts of a whole, a pair.  You can not have the one with out the other.  We can not get to Sunday without first traveling through Friday and it’s cross.  Yes, God is about to do something amazing, something profound, and something unexpected.  And that is good.

But what is happening on Friday is also good, not simply as a precursor to Sunday although it is that.  And not as a blood offering, as an atoning sacrifice, covering us and washing us clean of our sin, although it is that too.  But, there is something else happening, something else for us to see on that hill outside of Jerusalem.

In a few minutes we are going to extinguish this light, this last candle, as a symbol of Jesus’s death.  Jesus’s death.  For Jesus to die, he had to live.

“And the Word became flesh,” John tell us, “and dwelt among us.”  Now at the end, here at the cross, what of this fleshy Word?  In John, Jesus doesn’t cry out after God, accusing God of forsaking him, as he does in Matthew and Mark.  Nor does he extend an amazing other worldly forgiveness to both his killers and one being killed with him as he does in Luke.  No, John’s Jesus, our Jesus, is fleshy.  In the moments of his death this Jesus is concerned about his mama, making sure that there is someone to take care of her.  And he thirsts.  How wonderfully, pathetically human.  He thirsts.  The one who offered living water to the woman at the well thirsts.

John is reminding us that the living water; the true vine; the way, the truth, and the life; the light of the word; the good shepherd; the son of Man; the eternal Word of God has been made flesh.  Jesus, Christ, messiah, the anointed one of God, God incarnate has come, put on flesh and through the cross suffers with and for us.  The cross tells us that our God is not the cause of our pain and suffering and death.  NO!  The cross shows us that our God gets down into our pain with us.  At the Cross He allows him self to be subjected to pain and suffering.  He suffers with us, for us, even unto death to take something ugly and make it beautiful.  Surely this makes this day Good.

“The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

“I thirst.”

“It.  Is.  Finished.”

Preaching Sermons