Preaching John’s Wisdom

Ben Witherington is recognized for his exegetical expertise. Not as many know him as a preacher but his commentary John’s Wisdom shows his interest in homiletics as well. Look especially in the sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” for sermon starters. I will go straight to the back of the book to highlight some examples.

He offers a helpful reminder;

A great deal of good preaching involves drawing out the significances of the text for audiences vastly different from those originally addressed. This does not provide a warrant for making the text say whatever we would like it to say, for the starting point must always be, What did it mean in its original context? The later significances must be seen to be moving in the same direction as the text’s original meaning or drawing out its possible implications. Otherwise we lose contact with the original intent and purposes of the inspired author and the Bible becomes an ink blot into which we can read whatever we please with impunity.

Witherington goes on to give some sermon suggestions. Throughout the course of the commentary he suggests the characters of John’s drama as paradigms of people on the way to full Christian faith. In chapter 20 this changes with examples of Mary and Thomas who have met the Risen Lord. That is why Thomas can be referred to as “unbelieving” in 20.27 yet as having “believed” in 20.29. It is the episode with Thomas that prompts a memory of an Easter sermon “Late for the Holy Spirit.” Witherington then tells us about this sermon and its repeated emphasis to the largest crowd of the year that by not gathering with God’s people puts one at risk to miss out on the presence of Christ and the blessings that entails.

Witherington draws from Fred Craddock for a sermon idea in chapter 21 and what inevitably happens in churches after Easter. What does one do after a “mountaintop experience?” One is unable to sustain that level of enthusiasm constantly. Yet, the answer is not the one that Peter takes. The text does not call us to go about business as usual. Instead, Peter is called to get on with the mission “Feed my sheep.” This, Witherington reminds us, is what defines life’s work. Not mountaintop experiences.

Witherington goes on to offer further sermon fodder as he reminds us of the problems of comparing ourselves with others. As Peter turns to ask about the disciple Jesus loved “following”, we are reminded that though others may interest us, “Jesus in this passage insists more than once that the task of each Christian is to follow him, not be a follower of other human beings.”

While exegetes are a gift to the church, some seem far removed from this role. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an attempt to connect sound exegesis and the ministry of the local church by offering starter ideas for preachers. I propose this is a helpful resource for those who attempt to communicate the message of John’s Gospel.

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A Look at Luke Before Easter

Luke brings us together to hear Jesus preach in chapter six and then turns us loose into a rather ominous situation. For the next two chapters it seems that we are surrounded by death.

That very first scene after the sermon directs us to a centurion and his slave. Luke says that this slave was “about to die”, but he goes on to tell us that Jesus grants him good health. In the next episode we encounter one who has already died, the only son of a grieving widow. Yet, Jesus touches the coffin, speaks to the dead man, and “the dead man sat up and began to speak.” Chapter seven seems to acknowledge death and sickness as significant barriers. But, Luke wants us asking whether these things are barriers for Jesus.

Then, in the next chapter we find one possessed by many demons. One who is living among the dead, “in the tombs.” Luke does not tell us how to identify a demon. He does not give pointers on casting one out. But, he certainly wants us to know who rules in this domain. For “the man who was demon-possessed had been made well.” Afterward, we are in a situation where an official of the synagogue requests that Jesus help his twelve year old daughter who is dying. Before they reach the official’s home, they get word that she had already died. But Jesus takes her by the hand, speaks to her, “and she rose up immediately.”

In this context of death, Luke wants us to be aware that other things are going on as well. Jesus receives an envoy from John the Baptist, ministers to a Pharisee and an immoral woman, tells parables, calms a storm at sea, and heals a woman who could not be healed. While one or more of these things may add to any death related theme (for example, the disciples cry out “we are perishing”), they may also remind us that even in dire circumstances, other parts of ministry remain important.

Whatever goes through our mind while reading this section of the Gospel, Luke wants us to understand something about death. Luke just puts it out there, even before Easter, death may be a significant barrier, but Jesus rules even in this domain.

Preaching as Invasion

There is a book on my shelf titled Invading Secular Space.  Something about that title always grabs my attention.  William Willimon writes about similar ideas in The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized.  While I am not convinced that Willimon would be willing to concede space as secular, he does make it clear how he feels about the way that God enters one’s life.  He might prefer that God interupts or invades or intrudes into one’s life.  He talks about the preacher’s role in this process.  He talks about a recovering cocaine addict named Velma who reminded him of these things.

People like Velma remind us that evangelism is not about getting new members for the church or finding deeper meaning in our lives as much as it is “a gracious, unmanageable, messy by-product of the intrusions of God.”  Evangelism may change the life of an outsider, but it will also change the church.    This is what I think Willimon is after.  He wants to see “the transformation of God’s people from an enclave of the culturally content into a beachhead for divine invasion.”  In the end, I am not sure that he writes about preaching to the unbaptized in any different way than preaching to the baptized (which by the way is another volume by Willimon).

He discards things that others may find helpful to communicate truth.  So preaching is no time for apologetics or worldly wisdom or marketing.  These things, despite their good intentions, may instead get in the way of the gospel.  Any starting point other than God and the Gospel of God carries some implication that those things are more important than God.

Willimon warns preachers not to promise what the gospel does not promise.  He might say that preaching that becomes too pragmatic borders on atheism.  After all, such pragmatism may not require God at all.  He might say that preaching that promises our lives to become easier is a move that sounds more like a salesman than a preacher.  Such promises are the wishes of the current regime and not of the gospel.

In contrast to excessive promises and practicality, Willimon calls on Jonathan Edwards as an illustration of preaching to the unbaptized.  While Edwards writes of “surprising conversions” Willimon suspects that Edwards was “genuinely surprised when anyone heard, really heard and responded to his preaching.  We ought also to be surprised.”  Willimon suspects this because of his belief that the gospel is so different from any other words that it is a miracle when it is really heard.

He calls on Easter as the miracle that drives our preaching.  Willimon states that “it is only because Jesus has been raised from the dead that I have confidence in preaching.”  And only because of his return to “disheartened followers after Easter that I presume that he has made me an agent of gospel subversion through preaching.”  While others may have different reasons or motives, Willimon concludes that “preaching in the service of anything less than a living, intrusive God is not worth the effort.”  I respond in agreement.

Preaching does not attempt to relax the tension between the way we are doing things and the way that God says to do them differently.  Preaching does not aim for agreement, but conversion.  Preaching communicates that we do not know what is really going on around us or to us until we are encountered by the reality of the gospel.

Willimon rightly challenges us with the reality that preaching is an assault, an invasion, an intrusion into a complacent, rational, and conventional world.  Preaching should not aim to improve lives.  Preaching should not encourage you to find deeper meaning in the things you already do.  Instead, preaching should come more like a collision in the intersection that causes you to stop because you were going the wrong way at the wrong speed at the wrong time.  Preaching grabs the map from your dashboard and tosses it out the window as a reminder that you do not have your journey figured out.  Preaching should remind us that we have been listening to the wrong channel and need to tune into a different voice in order to learn where we are to go next.  In short, Willimon desires that our contentment with the way things are is not ok.  He calls for an invasion by an intrusive word.

Unexpected Words

I do not wish to constrict or limit preaching by claiming that it has to be done in a certain way, at a certain time, or about certain things.  I do wish to point out that near the end of the Gospel of Mark there are two episodes where we find unexpected people delivering an unexpected message about Jesus.  And I am convinced that these two episodes are helpful to preachers interested in proclaiming news about Jesus.

Admittedly, this is a brief look at these episodes.  Yet, even a brief look places us in situations where words about Jesus totally change the situation into which they were spoken.  It is not the words themselves that change the situation.  Instead, these words are recognition of what has become obvious to the speaker.  These words become an announcement of reality.

The first is in chapter fifteen where a Roman Military Officer reframes the crucifixion of a political criminal into a revelation that Jesus is the Son of God.  Unexpected words that readers of the Gospel have been waiting to hear.  Words that are different from words we are hearing from others.

And then in chapter 16 we are introduced to some well-meaning people. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come with good intentions. They are looking for Jesus. We are told that it was the first day of the week. They are right on schedule. They arrive in reverence, with respect, in order to pay tribute to Jesus. They love him. They are faithful to the ritual. They come with a question, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”  Perhaps we could paraphrase that question like this, “Will anyone be able to remove that barrier between us and Jesus?”

They come without expectation.  But then, things begin to happen. They discover that already, “the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.” They are then greeted by a young man in a white robe who speaks to them some unexpected words. “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He said to you.”

As in Mark, on any Sunday, people will show up looking for Jesus. They may be well intentioned people, they love Jesus, they desire to pay him tribute. They would like to do something for him.  And then, the preacher utters unexpected words.  Words that are not being uttered anywhere else.  We talk about an impossible situation. We talk about something that only God can pull off. We are reminded that Jesus is not always where we expect him to be. We do not have a corner on what he does or where he shows up. That just because our intentions are good does not mean that we are about his business. And, as in Mark, the response might be astonishment or fear or both.

We have become trained to look for an outline. For something that might make a catchy slogan.  Or answer pragmatic questions.  We are looking for “How the Cross Improves Your Life.” Or, “Making the Resurrection Work for You.” Instead, we get unexpected words. Words as unexpected as Easter. No one expected the dead to come back to life any more than they expect our words to make a difference.  But, these words interrupt well intentioned plans. Interrupt those who come expecting to do something for Jesus.  Our task is still to interrupt the lives of people with the news of a Risen Lord.

We may consider ourselves unlikely candidates to speak such unexpected words.  Interestingly, in both episodes the preacher is also somewhat unexpected.  No one expected a Roman Military Officer to reframe the crucifixion quite like that.  Some may have been convinced that he was a failed messiah, a misunderstood prophet, or a guilty criminal.  No one was saying that maybe this was the Son of God.  But the words of this speaker cause hearers to rethink the reality of this situation.  Readers of Mark have been waiting for someone to speak these words for a long time.  But no one expected this particular preacher.

The expectation was to find a dead Jesus in the tomb.  They suspected that it would be the right thing to anoint the body.  No one expected a young man dressed in white to be seated there instead.  No one expected this young messenger to be speaking for Jesus.  No one expected Jesus to be alive and on the move in Galilee.  But the words of this preacher remind listeners that they are not finished following Jesus.

We preach to the curious.  The heckler.  The seeker.  The one who came to do something.  We preach to those who are just performing rituals.  We preach to those who came to hear about Jesus.  To those who thought that a criminal was crucified, here hangs the Son of God.  To those who thought they were about to anoint a dead body, that body is alive and wants you to follow him to Galilee.

Like the preachers of Mark, we may be speaking to observers or to those intentionally seeking Jesus.  To antagonists or to someone wanting to do something for Jesus.  To those who come thinking they will have to remove the barrier between themselves and Jesus, only to find out that it has already been moved.  Like the preachers of Mark, we bring words to our gatherings that cause listeners to rethink what is happening around us.  Words that may be contrary to appearances.  Words that suggest things are not the way they seem.    Our situation may appear to look a certain way, but reality suggests otherwise.  We are called to state that reality.