Barbara Brown Taylor and John the Baptist

At this point, my fascination with John the Baptist is no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. Perhaps that is why I want to feature Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon “Wherever the Way May Lead.” If you desire to read the sermon in its entirety, I recommend you purchase Home By Another Way, it is the second sermon of thirty nine that she includes in her book. What I would like to do here is to highlight portions that demonstrate some of her strengths of storytelling and ability to put words together in ways that not only keep our attention but open us up for truth.

She wants to tell about the good news of Jesus. And she starts like this “Mark’s Gospel does not begin with angels whispering in Mary’s ear. There are no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, no wise men from the east following a star, no big-eyed animals standing around a straw-stuffed manger…“ For Mark, “the good news of Jesus Christ begins in the wilderness of Judea with an old-timey prophet named John.”

Brown Taylor tells us that from what she knows about John she would have gone out of her way not to see him. He reminds her too much of “those street evangelists who wave their bibles at you and tell you that you are going straight to hell if you do not repent right now.” Yet, she does point out a big difference between them and John. While a street evangelist is likely to get in your face and dare you to ignore them, John set up shop in the middle of nowhere and people had to go to a lot of trouble to hear what he had to say.

This is especially interesting for those who are from Jerusalem. Why not just stay, attend extra services at the temple, or make an appointment with a priest. To go out of the way to hear John meant people were looking for something that temple was not supplying for them. She spells it out like this “The Holy Spirit had gotten all but covered up in Jerusalem, with pretend piety and temple taxes and priestly hocus pocus. The flame was all but snuffed out under the weight of all that foppery, so God moved it – out into the wilderness, where the air was sharp and clean, out under the stars where it was fanned by the most socially unacceptable character anyone could imagine.”

John was announcing an arrival. “Someone was coming, someone so spectacular that it was not enough simply to hang around waiting for him to arrive. It was time to get ready, to prepare the way, so that when he came he could walk a straight path right to their doors.”

John was the messenger. “And the message lit him up like a bonfire in the wilderness. People were drawn to him, apparently, not only because of who he was and what he said but also because of what he offered them – a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were someone else and start over again.”

By “setting up shop in the wilderness, he proclaimed his freedom from so-called civilization, with all its rules and requirements. He called people to wake up, to turn around, so that they would not miss the new thing God was doing right before their eyes.

“The gospel always begins with a messenger, whether it is an angel whispering in Mary’s ear or a parent telling a child a story or a skinny prophet standing knee-deep in a river.” She goes on to say “The good news is always beginning somewhere in the world, for those with ears to hear and hearts to go wherever the way may lead.”

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Preach Like This

  • Do not clean up the text. Spill it all. Spill the messy contents and the parts that are hard to explain. It is God’s word. You do not get to pick and choose the parts to be reported.
  • Be honest with the struggles you have with the text. Listeners will have similar challenges. It will be helpful for them to know that you do as well.
  • Tell people about how great God is. Not how great they are or how great their cause is. Preaching is more than self help or social action. It is about a great God.
  • Preach your own sermons. If you regularly preach sermons you find online, stop. This does not benefit you or your listeners. Work with the text and share the message God gives.
  • Preach to people that you know like you know them.
  • Take a biblical stand. This is not the same as a partisan political stand. And especially do not be mean about politicians you disagree with.
  • Preach grace. Acknowledge problems. Acknowledge shortcomings. Acknowledge sin. But preach grace. God is into grace, we should be also.
  • Spur listeners to behave differently. Encourage action. People want to do something for God. You do not have to tell them what to do, but inspire them to do something.

Like Living in a New Country

Raewynne J. Whiteley is tired of sermon prep becoming a burden and intrusion for preachers. She desires to reclaim sermon prep as a time for preachers to engage with God in ways that strengthen their preaching. That is why she wrote Steeped in the Holy: Preaching as Spiritual Practice. Before I talk about it any further I cannot help but mention what Ellen F. Davis says about the book on the back cover. “Preaching like this is serious, holy fun for both preacher and congregation.”

Whiteley proposes that when we open our bibles in preparation for preaching, we need a new way of reading, “one that enables us to find our home in this world of God’s.” That is the primary emphasis we find in her chapter titled “Finding Our Way Home: Scripture.”

She talks about entering the bible as entering a new world. In the bible, we find a world where angels appear, healings take place, visions are common. This is a world where the primary focus is on the relationship between God and humanity. In this world, the intervention of God is expected.

This world exists as a world parallel to another world. A world of computers and friendships and quarrels and cars. A world that is populated with the desires and the fears of our hearts. When Lucy stepped beyond the wardrobe into Narnia, she discovered, not an imaginary world, but a world as real as her own. A world that became more real the more time she spent there. So it is when we enter the world of scripture. It “is not a retreat from reality, but an entering into deeper reality.” A reality that helps us gain perspective on our ordinary realities we live in day by day.

Whiteley suggests there are at least three ways we can approach this world of scripture. The first is as a tourist. When we arrive to a new country for the first time, we might want to visit the famous sites. We want to see and hear the greatest hits. We might memorize details about key places. We are reliant on guides and interpreters. We might gain some new perspectives temporarily, but once we return home our new perspectives are overcome by everyday living.

Approaching scripture as a tourist is no different. We visit the well-known sites, we read about the main characters and well known places. We learn enough of the language to talk about the basics. But we leave the rest to experts. We might talk excitedly about where we have been, but the excitement soon wears off and we return to life the way it has always been before.

The second approach she talks about is the scientist. When we approach a new country as a scientist, we approach it objectively. We may intentionally avoid the tourist attractions. We are more interested in the details. We are observers. We catalog. We define. We analyze. We dissect. We rely on input from our professional peers. We look for patterns. We form a plan to write papers and share knowledge and become experts.

Approaching scripture as a scientist is no different. We are interested in knowledge. We are interested in history and social structure and textual reliability and translation issues. We rely on concordances and dictionaries and commentaries. While there may be some gain from this approach, we can also recognize the danger of becoming an uninterested observer.

A third approach Whiteley gives is that of an immigrant. When we approach a new country as an immigrant, we expect things to be different. We might have to learn new vocabulary, if not a new language. We learn new social norms and expectations. We adopt new lifestyle in order to belong. We do not lose the influence of where we have come from, but we do become more aware of the differences. We develop new relationships and begin to call this new place home.

Approaching scripture as an immigrant is like this. We explore it like new residents. We learn the culture and the language through participation. We become invested in it out of necessity. Such an approach demands a commitment to be people of scripture and faith. We are challenged by this world of scripture. It makes new demands on us. We cannot approach scripture in this way without being changed. And then, as we become more at home in this place, we discover it is our ancestral home. This is our place of origin. This is where we belong.

There are no doubts what approach Whiteley is pointing us toward. In fact, she does come out and say “The third approach to Scripture – and the one that I believe is most useful for preachers – is that of the immigrant.” Whiteley wants to help us to do more than travel to the text and back. More than investigate it for the sake of knowledge. She wants us to live there, to become residents in the land of scripture, to call it home.

Billy Graham

Billy Graham died last week. He was 99 years old. During his lifetime of nearly a century he demonstrated influence in arenas where preachers do not usually travel. Graham preached a simple evangelical message—give your heart to Jesus, and you will be “born again.” It is likely Graham preached to more people than anyone else in history, a claim that we may not have data to prove. But who could argue?

In 1945, at age 26, he addressed 65,000 in Chicago’s Soldier Field. The 1949 crusade in Los Angeles had a cumulative attendance of 350,000. (A interesting footnote to that tent crusade, one night he preached Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” nearly word for word). In 1957, a May-to-September rally in New York had attendance of 2.4 million, including 100,000 on one night at Yankee Stadium. A five-day meeting in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973 drew 3 million.

In fact, we may think of Billy Graham when we hear the word crusade. He was likely the most well known preacher on the planet during our lifetime. I remember my parents watching him on primetime television. I remember attending a crusade in Cleveland, OH. Billy Graham made preaching part of culture unlike anyone else.

Not many preachers attain the title of knight. But Billy Graham did. He was knighted by the British ambassador in 2001. He was known to be good friends with Queen Elizabeth. Not many preachers are given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Not many preachers serve as spiritual advisor to presidents. Graham offered counsel to all of them from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

Upon learning of his death, the presidents began to speak. George H. W. Bush said “I think Billy touched the hearts of not only Christians, but people of all faiths, because he was such a good man. I was privileged to have him as a personal friend.” And Bill Clinton “Billy Graham lived his faith fully, and his powerful words and the conviction they carried touched countless hearts and minds.” Barack Obama stated “Billy Graham was a humble servant who prayed for so many – and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.” Even Donald Trump chimed in “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”

Billy Graham was known for a strong stance on segregation. He insisted on racial integration at his crusades. He told a Mississippi audience in 1952 “there was no room for segregation at the foot of the cross.” In 1953, he personally removed the segregating ropes at a Chattanooga crusade. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach with him at a revival meeting in New York City. Later, he would post bail for King when he was arrested.

Graham simply preached the Gospel; he did not worry about intellectual challenges to the faith. His own claim was “I’m an ordinary preacher, just communicating the Gospel in the best way I know how.”

Billy Graham’s success had little to do with skill or showmanship. He preached a simple message and had influence because he believed what he said. That he believed this message is evident from a line he borrowed and adapted from another great American evangelist, D. L. Moody, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead, Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

Acts 4.32-5.11: a Written Sermon

“Mission Accountable” – a Sermon from Mike Walters

I once heard Stuart Briscoe say that this story by itself was enough to keep him from ever claiming to have a “New Testament” church!  What pastor is prepared to answer the question,  “How many people died during the offering Sunday?” Passing the offering plates and asking,  “Where’s the rest?” That’s not exactly seeker sensitive.

Along with  politics, music, and flavors of ice cream, “church” is one of those topics about which everyone has an opinion.  Some have mostly contempt for the church.  Their attitude mirrors that of the. British poet Robert Southey, who said, “I could believe in Christ if He did not insist on dragging behind Him His leprous bride.”  Others, ironically some of whom are in the church, separate the church from Christ, seeing the church as a dispensable “add on” to the faith, an optional, even unnecessary aspect of the Christ event.

There was a troubling heresy in the early church known as docetism.  It comes from a Greek word meaning to “seem.”  What docetism argued was that anything material was evil, so that when Christ walked upon this earth, he only seemed to have a body. A sinless Jesus couldn’t have really been a human being.  These days, when I hear people talking about the faith apart from the church, about Christ apart from His body, then I know that docetism is still among us.

The book of Acts aggressively challenges any thinking that would disembody Christ by separating Jesus and His church.  No, they are inseparably and eternally linked.  John Calvin rightly said, “If God is our father, then the church is our mother.”  Contrary to what many people imagine, the primary concern of scripture is NOT the spiritual state of individuals, their holiness, or even their salvation.  The focus is God’s people, His “ekklesia,” God’s new community.  A community that is visible and tangible, which provides a new way of living and thinking for all those who enter into it.  It is Christ’s body, and it is that community that serves as the critical link between Jesus and the mission He began in this world and which He asked us, His people, to continue.

Back in Acts 1, Jesus clearly commissions the church to be his evangelists, to bear witness to the truth of His resurrection and of His kingdom come among us.  What we see in the book of Acts then,  is not just a bunch of stories of heroic apostles facing all sorts of dangers only to be delivered at the last moment by some intervention of the Holy Spirit.  What we see mostly is a community of believers faithfully living out the missional witness to which they have been called.  Even in Paul’s journeys, the primary concern there is always with the establishment and nurturing of churches.

This opening snapshot of the church in 4:32-35, demonstrates that God intends for the mission to be performed and sustained by His people who gather together into the covenant community bearing His name.   Will Willimon observed that when we read that the company of believers were “one in heart and mind” we’re not surprised.. We are used to hearing such pious, even unrealistic claims made about Christian congregations.  Drive around and read church signs: “One big happy family.” No one is going to put on their church signs: “We fight like cats and dogs!”  Does anyone take those signs seriously?  But then he wondered what are we to do with, “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”  You read that and you recognize that we’re not talking about church business as usual.

In Acts, Luke carefully shows us that the church’s witness in the world is twofold. Yes, it involves the external witness of the proclamation of the gospel, but it also involves the internal witness of the Christian community.  Both of these are concrete expressions of God’s grace and both are critically important in minding the mission in the book of Acts.  Obviously, the proclamation of the good news is strategically important in the church’s mission.  And Luke chronicles the lengths to which God is prepared to go in the Book of Acts to protect the proclamation of the word.  Apostles will be sprung from prison, there will be earthquakes and shipwrecks, and all sorts of interventions so that the word may be proclaimed.  Just prior to this text, the apostles have been threatened and essentially told to “shut up” and knock off the preaching. But, God is granting the church courage and steadfastness in the proclamation of the good news. The authorities can’t shut them up.  The external witness is vital.

But what I want us to see is that in the very same way, Acts also shows us how seriously God takes this business of the internal witness of the community.  God wants His people to live in such a way that it attracts the attention of people outside the church.   In Acts, salvation begins with a conversion experience, and it may even be accompanied with signs and wonders, but sustaining that conversion experience, enabling that conversion to become salt and light in the world requires the formation of a people.  A people who are decidedly different from any other people in the culture. More than any other church activity in Acts, what marks that early church off from the rest of the culture is the way it cares for its poorest members.  That practice bears an unmistakable witness to the claim that these are truly God’s people.. Luke says that Gods’ grace was powerfully at work in these people. The KJV says simply that “Great grace was upon them all.”  The reality and power of God’s grace upon this church enables it to live out its public life in such a way that captures the attention of outsiders.  This sharing of goods is not the result of any command, or obligation laid upon them.  No, it is a response to the great grace that was upon them all.  You know that in order for people to let go of anything, but especially money and possessions—-they must have taken hold of something else.  That’s the case here. The sharing of goods occurs as an outgrowth of the  “great grace upon them all” and the result is a brand new kind of community that gets the attention of the culture.

It’s the Spirit at work! In Acts 2, the Spirit enabled the same Peter who had denied knowing Jesus, to bear powerful witness to Jesus in front of the whole city of Jerusalem.  In Acts 3 that same wonder working power of the Spirit makes a lame man walk.  And now here, this gracious Spirit has inspired a man named Barnabas to sell his field and to give the proceeds to the Apostles.  In the power of the Spirit, this church takes care of its own, and in so doing, it bears an unmistakable likeness to the Jesus they claim to represent.

I was interested to note that this text from Acts  is the lectionary text for the Sunday after Easter.  What has this to do with Easter?  It’s all about money!   Well, in Luke’s mind, everything in this text is connected to this church’s belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  It is the resurrection that makes true generosity and counter-cultural living possible.  Because Jesus is alive, everything is different, including our values and our attitudes about money.  Karl Marx claimed that nearly every human attitude and action could be traced to economic sources.  Luke isn’t a Marxist, but he is a realist.  He knows that there’s a real good chance that where our possessions are, our hearts will be there also.  In fact, a surprisingly large amount of Acts deals with economic issues within the Christian community.

I think Luke is on to something. Nowhere is the authenticity of the Christian community more evidenced than in how its members view possessions.  Nowhere is the witness of the church more vulnerable than at the point of the church’s willingness to provide for its weakest members.  It’s a powerful witness to the reality of the gospel.  In Australia, where the church is not generally well thought of,  one group there is nevertheless constantly affirmed by the unbelieving culture and that is the Salvation Army–the Salvos as they are called there. The internal witness of the church gets the world’s attention!  Why do you think that the work of World Hope International has captured the imagination and affirmation of so many?  Because it’s easy to see that there is an authenticity in the care of world’s little ones that cannot be assigned to anything other than the reality of the Kingdom of God.  When I read of local churches caring for their people in tangible ways, then I know that Acts 1:8 is being incarnated among us.  It’s more than proclamation, it’s also incarnation. It’s living out the kingdom of God in front of our neighbors.  Bill Hybels is famous for saying, “Church is a beautiful thing when it works right.”  It is, and, it is a powerful witness.  “No needy persons among them.”  What would that look like in your church?  What kind of witness would that be?

And I’m not implying that this is simple to do.  All of you already know that the church isn’t some idyllic gathering where everyone sits around sipping tea, eating finger sandwiches and talking about the latest trends on religious televison.  No, the church is real, with real people. And that means that the church can be “messy.”  It’s not perfect, but I’ll tell you what it is—it is God’s chosen instrument in the world to accomplish His purposes.  And, first and foremost is God’s intention for the church to bear witness to the reality of a living Jesus, simply by living as Jesus lived.  Treating others the way Jesus treated them.  As they say, “it’s not rocket science.”  That’s what this early church did.  It wasn’t heroic, or spectacular, but it clearly lived in a way that showed that they were different.  It’s the Spirit! We see the same power which raised Jesus on Easter, and which thrust multi-lingual apostles into the streets at Pentecost, and empowered one who was lame, now empower a community of believers to release the tight grip of their personal possessions.

But, not completely.   Acts 5:1-11 is surely one of the most unsettling stories we have in scripture.  It probably shouldn’t surprise us that the first crisis to hit the young Christian community involves money.  If anyone thinks that the material question is a small issue, this incident proves otherwise.  It is literally a matter of life and death.  What’s this about?  Ananias and Sapphira probably saw the selfless act of Barnabas, noted the admiration it evoked from the people, perhaps saw his standing the community begin to rise, and they thought, “we’d like that too.”  So, they sell off a field and instead of giving all of the money from the proceeds to the apostles, they secretly agree to keep back part of the money for themselves.  Nothing particularly wrong with that, except that Peter knows the truth.   And he confronts Ananias about it. Peter’s rebuke of Ananias centers around, not that he kept back part of the money, but that he did so in such a way that the community was deceived, and even worse, that he attempted to deceive the Holy Spirit. And upon hearing the charge of lying to God, Ananias drops dead, as does Sapphira a few hours later when the same deceitful scenario unfolds.  Listen carefully to what is being said here: in lying to the church, Ananias and Sapphira  have lied to God.  Let that sink in for a moment.  This man and woman weren’t simply lying to the church, they were lying to God.  You still think Church isn’t serious business?  In Acts 9, on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus and his murderous persecution of the church is stopped literally in his tracks by the words of Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Apparently,  God’s just a bit touchy about this business of His church.  He takes it real personal.

Ananias and Sapphira were possessed by a ‘divided heart,’ their decision making process was caught between dual loyalties. James would say they were “doubleminded.”  They wanted to be part of the community, but  they also  wanted the security of their own hands.  They wanted to have their cake and eat it too. This is in stark contrast to the ways of the church who are described as being of one heart and one mind.  What this story shows us is that there is an ongoing battle between Satan and the Holy Spirit for the heart of the community.  We see Barnabas demonstrate the possession of the Spirit, while Ananias and Sapphira demonstrate a heart dominated by evil.  Maybe more than all the other evangelists, Luke seems to be acutely aware of how money gets between people and God. Only Luke tells the story of the Rich Fool, the man who put all of his hope in his possessions.  Luke is convinced that Jesus’ words about the inability to serve both God and money are true.

Let me “meddle” here a bit and suggest some ways in which we might apply this passage.   First off, this text is hard on Americans.  We have such a strong sense of individualism.  That can be a strength in some cases, but it’s tough on community.  The idea of putting the group, the community, ahead of the individual is hard on us.  But without community, its just so easy to revert back to the pre-conversion attitudes and values.  And it seems to me that the failure of authentic community is what accounts for so many American “Christians” living lives that do not bear witness to much of anything other than the fact that they claim to know that they are going to heaven when they die.  Other than that, there is absolutely no difference between them and their unbelieving neighbors.  It is within the parameters of the community of faith that we can be possessed by the Spirit of generosity allowing us to turn loose of those things which otherwise would bind and control us in ways that are counter to the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is part and parcel part of the church’s commission to be witnesses for Jesus. Robert Wall said, “The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated Easter pageant, but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that Jesus is alive!”

The question for today’s church is this: Why don’t we look more resurrected?  Why don’t people look at us and our corporate lives and exclaim, “Wow, Jesus must really be alive?” Perhaps it’s because we have neglected this internal witness of the community.  Maybe it’s because so many of us are trying to serve both God and money.  The paradoxical insight of the gospel about money is that we will never have enough, no matter how much we have; the only way to have “enough” is to give it away.   That’s what Barnabas discovered.

The death of Ananias and Sapphira may seem surreal to us, but in a true sense their death sentence was already contained in their own decision to cut themselves off from the community by means of greed and deception.  The dropping dead part was simply making real and outwardly evident the cancerous spiritual condition of their hearts.

I suspect that some may be thinking: “I didn’t come to hear another sermon about money. Why can’t we talk about spiritual things?  Things that are really important?”  Luke would insist that we are.  Luke would say that in getting to the matter of money, we are revealing our hearts, and we are determining, with some degree of certainty, how well the mission might progress. Some years ago now, I met the Romanian dissident Josef Tson.  Josef was a Baptist pastor who had been arrested, imprisoned, even tortured by the Communists government of Romania until they finally exiled him from the country.  He was a visionary Christian leader and upon the fall of the Communist government in 1990 immediately returned to Romania to continue his ministry.  I met with him and a group of pastors one day in Rochester, NY and Josef was responding to questions by the different clergy who were present.  One asked this: “If you wanted to start a vital spiritual renewal in America what would you preach?”  We all anticipated his answer but were shocked when he said it.  “I’d preaching tithing.”  When asked why, Josef Tson said, “Because if you can’t get them to turn loose of 10% of their money, you’ll never get them to let go of the really important things.”

Beyond the way that  money and possession tend to reveal the true intentions of our hearts, I’m also fascinated with Peter’s approach here as the spiritual leader of this community.  I wonder how many churches would actually confront Ananias and Sapphira the way Peter did here?  More likely, “Look, they are our biggest givers, go along!”  But, Peter knows that there is no price tag that can be put upon the integrity and the witness of God’s people.  Being the church isn’t easy.  It’s serious business.

There’s one more thing about this text that sobers me, mostly because it reminds me of me.  What Ananias and Sapphira were doing here was essentially “playing church.”  They were making a good show of being devoted, of being supportive when, in fact, they were outwardly imitating Barnabas for all the wrong reasons.  Ananias and Sapphira wanted people to THINK they were fully committed when they weren’t.  How easily we do that!  We talk the talk.  We do all the right things, say all the right things, in such a way that anyone around us would say, “that Walters guy is all in, all his chips are in the center of the table.”  But then, I know how often  I have hedged my bet.  This text says that those actions may fool the people around us, but they don’t fool God, and God takes that very seriously because He knows that our deception will invariably take a toll on the health and vitality of this community that He loves.. I never think about this without recalling M.Scott Peck.  In his haunting book, People of the Lie, he wrote that the “est place to find really evil people is at church. It’s a good place to hide out.”  Ananias and Sapphira  were hiding out. Karl Barth observed that “church is where people go to make their last stand against God” And, Eugene Peterson reminds us that “religion is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds.  Pride, anger, lust, and greed are vermin that flourish under the floorboards of religion.  Those of us, who are identified with institutions or vocations in religion can’t be too vigilant.  The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass.”

So, what we have here in this odd narrative is a cautionary tale.  A reminder that church is exceedingly risky business. I think its significant that in the ending of this story, Luke uses the word “church” for the very first time.  Here, in struggling with money, the community first experiences itself as a the disciplined community of truthfulness.  I wonder if there could be a “Barnabas” here, someone with a huge future for God, but who might need to let go of something precious?  I also wonder if there may be some who have been playing the game— who have outwardly done and said all the right things, but inwardly your still trying to control it all.  Such an approach to Christian faith is walk on the edge of an abyss.

 

The ancient Didache, one of the earliest teaching texts of the church, begins with these words, “two ways there are, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.’  Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira personify this.  One is totally committed to the church and goes on to be a powerful instrument of God. introduces the converted Saul to the church. salvages John Mark, who wrote the second gospel, and so on.  Ananias and Sapphira are primal examples of church discipline and accountability, poignant testimonies as to the dangers of “playing church.”   We are called to mission, and that mission is accountable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advent Surprise

(A Written Sermon, Luke 2.8-20)

One thing that stands out in this text is the element of surprise. The shepherds were in the fields shepherding. They were not waiting for angels to show. This is not like Linus’s pumpkin patch where he goes out on purpose to sit and wait for a visit from the Great Pumpkin. These shepherds were here to look after sheep. They were here working in fields they had worked before without supernatural visitors. They are expecting nothing different on this night. But then, surprise… a visitor from heaven. And then, astonishing news. And then a crowd of visitors from heaven. Yes, of the many things that are going on this night and in this text… surprise is certainly one of them.

And then (and we do not want to minimize this) they went looking for Jesus. They could have questioned whether they were getting enough rest. They could have questioned what was in that bottle they had been drinking. They could have questioned whether they should have eaten that second helping of whatever that was. But the shepherds went looking for a Saviour. They went looking for Christ the Lord. They went looking for Jesus.

The text is straightforward about this “when the angels had left them and had gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”

Luke does not record that anyone else went looking. In fact, the gospels seem to go out of their way to suggest that people were just not that interested. It is recorded that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” But we do not know if any of them went to find out for themselves. Surely the star was seen by others, yet we are only told the magi followed it. The scholars in the king’s palace were able to tell exactly where to find the child king, yet do not make an effort to find him. But Luke wants us to know the shepherds went looking for Jesus.

The text says “they hurried off and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby.” The text presents the shepherds as eager explorers, seeking, working their way through fields and wilderness to make sense of what they have heard. They are intent about finding Jesus. The shepherds become ideal characters to talk about during Advent. We are all trying to make sense of this news, the news that Jesus is born to save the world. Advent calls for each of us to be seeking Jesus.

Yet it is so easy to become distracted during Advent. After all, there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. It becomes easier to look for a good deal, to look for free shipping, it becomes easier to look for what to serve or what to wear. The shepherds, these characters in the Advent of Jesus, remind us that what is important is to find Jesus. In fact they hurry, they have an urgency to find out if this news could be true.

The shepherds seem so noble, almost dignified. We have romanticized their part of the story. They are such an important part of the story that we forget, shepherds are people on the fringe. It is possible no one would have noticed if they went missing. Still these are the folks God chose to tell first about this good news.

My friend Layne has brought to my attention a connection with women we find later in the gospel. Women, like shepherds,would not have been first century decision makers, powerless in society. Yet women were the first people God chose to tell about resurrection. It is interesting how intentional God is about telling shepherds in the fields and women at the tomb, he sends angels to make sure that these particular people receive this particular message.

These people may not have had much power, much influence on the surface, certainly not in earthly kingdoms. But in God’s kingdom they receive special invitations. No one would have been bragging about the idea that God spoke to shepherds first about Christmas or to women first about Easter. Yet that is what we discover in the gospel about the way that God works.

We started by noting the element of surprise in the story. There is the surprise that a child was born in a stable and laid in a manger and will be the Savior of the world. And the surprise that this news was delivered to shepherds who were watching flocks in fields at night. And the surprise that comes with the implications this news has for us. Yes, this text reminds us Christmas is full of surprises – because God is full of surprises.

Preaching Philemon

When preaching Philemon we must get the story. I suspect one of the reasons that preaching lacks appeal is that we often miss the story. The fact is, we miss the message when we miss the story.

The letter is addressed to Philemon, a Christian in Colossae. The church meets at his house. Philemon has honor (honor was very important in the first century). And it is important to know – he is a slave owner.

The letter introduces us to Onesimus. His name means useless. He is a slave, a slave from Phiilemon’s house. And a runaway slave at that. While away he finds Paul, the one writing this letter with his own hand. And now he has become Christian.

Onesimus is sent back home with this letter. And the this letter is read out loud at church. “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker – also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier – and to the church that meets in your home.”

Needless to say, this is an interesting situation. And quite a dilemma for Philemon. Our preaching should allow the story to be interesting and should present the obvious dilemma.

First century Christians did not dress up and sit in rows at church and we get the story better if we can picture that. Onesimus may be standing in front next to the reader. Philemon would be present. And in the room would have been some very strong feelings about a runaway slave who is now standing there in front of him.

Other slaves in the room might have been glad to see Onesimus, or afraid for him, or angry that his actions may make their lives more difficult. The free people in the room might think it important for Philemon to do whatever is necessary to maintain his honor. I suspect there are moments of awkward silence as well as times of anxious rustling. Everyone in the room knows this is a very real dilemma.

But there is something else in the room. Gospel enters with this letter. They gathered to hear it. They wanted to take it seriously. But that is easier said than done. Gospel complicates things when there is already tension in the house.

We want to be sure and notice Paul’s moves. He addresses Philemon as “dear friend and fellow worker.” He then says “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do.” And then, “but I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” He then tosses this into the mix “I am an old man and now also a prisoner.” And then he pushes again. The intensity in the room was high. Everyone knows this is a very real dilemma.

Paul is no activist, this is no protest of slavery. It is much more than that. This is Gospel being delivered in a very real situation. Philemon is being asked to act according to the Gospel. Not because of guilt. Not because he was told to. This letter is written because the Gospel must be taken seriously. It is important for the church that Philemon gets this right. We do not usually refer to this letter as Gospel, but this is totally Gospel.

This is the message that in church, no one is more important than anyone else. In church, power does not define relationship. In the church, even the relationship between slave owner and runaway is shaped by the Gospel. Onesimus was a slave, but now he is Philemon’s brother. This Gospel makes a difference in real situations and real relationships. The church is the place where the kingdom of God is taking shape. The ways of the empire give way to the ways of the Kingdom. This becomes obvious to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

The question is in the room for Philemon and the rest of us. “How serious are you about the Gospel? How Christian are you? Are you Christian until it affects your honor? Until it affects your property?” Everyone in the congregation is asking themselves how serious they are about this Gospel they gather to hear about on Sundays.

Onesimus may mean useless, but he is called “useful” in v.11. A runaway slave is a major character in this letter because he is a major character in the church. Power and status fly out the window in the letter to Philemon.

This letter asks us all how serious we are about Gospel. It reminds us where the Kingdom takes root, in real places and real gatherings and real relationships like we find at Philemon’s house. When preaching Philemon we are calling listeners to welcome and forgive. Preaching Philemon will call us to respond to a very real dilemma.