Preachers Should Expect Surprise

In The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized William Willimon talks about how God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises. He says “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.”

The people God chooses to love are certainly surprises. I like Willimon’s conversation held in an empty church building. “I’d sit down in my office, pour God a cup of coffee, and ask, ‘Now let’s go over this again. Why did you think it was a good idea to build a church here… Okay. But why these people?’” He goes on “And then God would reply, saying something to the effect that ‘these are my people… (this) is my idea of a good time.’”

While Willimon may not be preaching as he writes this, he is a preacher so it is no surprise he turns to a text. He claims no one preaches Genesis 38. In this text we meet Tamar who goes through husbands and funerals and is eventually sent away. Tamar the unmarried childless widow becomes the savvy deceptive harlot. Willimon describes her expected situation like this “End of story. Tragic. Dead End.” Instead “Because this is the Bible, where nearly anything can happen and often does… Tamar becomes the lead character.”

Just when we are wondering why Genesis gives an entire chapter to Tamar, we are surprised to find her again. Only this time we find her in the Gospel of Matthew. The childless widow harlot who seduced her father in law becomes the great great grandmother of Jesus. Have we mentioned that God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises?

Our history is full of ancestors we do not often talk about. We belong to a peculiar family. And we will continually be surprised by a God who would write a person like Tamar into the gospel. For “If Tamar could slip into the beginning of the gospel, so might you.”

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A Written Sermon

“Everyone Travels with a Text” (Genesis 12.1-9)

Abraham becomes famous in Genesis chapter 12. But we meet him one chapter earlier where he is a nomad. He is old, childless and he serves the gods that culture offers up, just like everyone else does. He is an unlikely candidate to be on the cover of Time Magazine. Yet, there he was on September 30, 2002. Everything changed for Abraham when he received a text “Go… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

It is important to know that all of us begin the year with a text. It does not matter whether we are looking for one or not. We have a text and it will shape the path we follow. We read a text today. Before it was our text, it was Abraham’s text. Abraham, one raised to serve other gods, Abraham, old and childless receives this text. He was told to “Go… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” It is of interest to us that when he received this text, Abraham gives up the texts he has heard before. He stops listening to those other texts and heeds this text.

Genesis makes it clear to us what Abraham’s text is. It is less clear what our own text might be. The text we choose to live by may not be so obvious. Still each of us live by a text. Sometimes we think if we did not have the biblical text, we would have no text at all. But everyone lives by a text, known or unknown.

If we are not listening to the biblical text, other texts will take over. Many texts are waiting to move in and guide our lives. Genesis may suggest that these other texts are less adventurous, less reliable and shallow. Still the texts of culture tempt us. In desperate moments we borrow from them or even partially commit to them. We regularly find ourselves with people who are haunted by the question “Is there a text that can make sense of my life?” I propose Abraham was one of those people. That is until he received this text.

From that time on this text became Abraham’s constant companion. Genesis says Abraham went forth. Everywhere he went, this text, this promise, was present. We read that he is in Canaan, among the Canaanites, these words were with him. He was to live by this text while surrounded by people who do not know this text. He was to live by this text among people who follow different texts.

I cannot help but stop here and ask “What does it mean to be where we are and surrounded by others who live differently? What does it mean to be listening to words no one else is listening to? Are we secret operatives who carry news that can save the world? Are we spies who deliver news to a land that has not heard this news before? Are we couriers who belong to some revolution? What reason do we have for living by a text so different than what others live by? Genesis suggests it is because “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Perhaps we should be surprised that Abraham receives this text at all. After all, humans were originally a critical part of the plan. The role they are to play in creation is significant. People are the image bearers of the Creator – the representatives of God in the world. But people drop the ball. Not just once but multiple times. Yet, in a surprise move God does not give up on people. God does not abandon the plan. He still calls people to stand at the dangerous intersection where heaven and earth meet. That is where we find ourselves today. Ever since Abraham received this text.

I think of the way the book of Job is introduced with a meeting in the heavens and I imagine that something like that might have taken place with Abraham. I sometimes wonder about the days when the sons of God, Satan among them, presented themselves before the Lord. I wonder if on one of those days the Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” And Satan would reply “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”

And then Satan would continue, “I know that you desire humans be your image bearers, your representatives on earth. But the human experiment has been a disaster. They disappoint at every turn. Do you remember what happened in Eden? Have you forgotten the corruption of the days of Noah? Must I remind you what they were doing at Babel? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that humans will never become the representatives you had hoped for.”

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered the human Abraham? I have selected him to leave his home. His descendants will be many and his reputation will bring me glory. The whole earth will be influenced by this plan.”

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Have you considered his age? Have you considered he is childless and his wife is barren?” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, watch this plan change the world.”

Abraham and Sarah are introduced in a way to show this is still God’s plan. People are a blessing to the world. But, God has a specific people in mind. A particular family who are living by a particular text. Abraham and Sarah are called to reverse the problems of Adam and Eve. As God was present in Eden he will dwell with his people who live by his words.

The biblical text is a necessary companion of the church. At times the difficulties cause the church to try to travel without portions of the text. Yet the people of God and the word of God belong together. Each of them is incomplete without the other. Each helps to make sense of the other.

Still we are constantly turning the page to find yet another challenge from the text. We cannot shrug it off because we do not like where it is going. We should not attempt to move past these parts quickly or quietly. Like Abraham we do not know exactly where this text will lead. We do not know exactly what happens next. But we must take this text seriously. Because we know that a promise was given to a particular people that says “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

The Reality of the Promise

We find an interesting picture as the Joseph narrative is nearly finished and Joseph introduces his father Jacob to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Here Genesis gives a clash of world views. Two different histories. Two different ways of life. One appears secure, the other appears to have nothing. In fact, these two have only one thing in common – Joseph. Pharaoh is settled, safe and prosperous. Jacob is a nomad with nothing but a promise. Yet he believes this promise more than any of the Egyptian realities.

“Then Joseph brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.” Pharaoh asks a question, Jacob responds, but Genesis seems more interested in telling us again “And Jacob blessed Pharaoh.”

This conversation does not go the way we might expect. This meeting between Jacob of the promise and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Of all people to bless – Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Not only am I predisposed to think that Pharaoh does not merit a blessing. But, it seems that if there is a blessing to be made between these two players, it would be the other way around. Jacob appears needy, he is dependent on Pharaoh for resources. He sent his sons to beg Egypt for food. Pharaoh has everything at his disposal. Yet, Genesis is clear. Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Israel blesses Egypt.

Jacob is not alone in having an audience that may be looking elsewhere for stability. We are not the first to share blessing with people trusting in a more visible reality. As Pharaoh, people who hear our words of blessing may not be expecting a word from God. In fact, they may, as Pharaoh may have been, be thinking that they are ok with the way things are. Yet, God is not. So He sends a word.

I am struck by the fact that Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded that it is not necessary to have more than those we speak to. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded that God is interested in people that we may find undeserving. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we realize the success of preaching is not in our hands. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded to believe in the reality of the promise more than the reality of the prevailing worldview.

A Conversation About Preaching

This weekend I am participating in a conversation with friends about preaching. We will explore texts and ideas. We hope to spark a conversation about text and preaching that becomes an ongoing dialogue. We hope to encourage a sense of working together as colleagues in sermon preparation.

Our conversation will provide a forum that emphasizes the importance of preaching. We will utilize our time by looking at a particular section of scripture, discussing the importance of text, and exploring sermon ideas.

We will begin by stepping into the text. We will listen carefully. We will ask preliminary questions. On this occasion, our text comes from Genesis. In Genesis, God sets great things in motion – and we are invited to participate.

We will move on to wade a little deeper. To look more carefully at our text. From the start, Genesis tells of a reality that we would know nothing about – except for these words. We will explore God’s creating activity. Not only the creation of a world, but of a people to glorify the Creator in that world. We will discuss potential sermons that rise up from the Genesis text.

From there, we will follow the text. We will not assume that we know this text. Instead we will allow the text to pull us along wherever it leads. We will be reminded of ways that the text knows where we live. We will share sermon ideas with one another. And although we will leave this gathering, I hope that we will not leave the conversation.

Working With a Living God

Preaching Genesis is like following Abraham up Mount Moriah and laying our offering on the altar and praying for a miracle. Just when we are about to give everything we have, God comes through with more. It is like following Jacob to Peniel where we see God face to face and wrestle the text until a blessing is given. It is like following Joseph into the presence of the royal court where we are handed a text that can only be interpreted with the help of God.

Preaching Genesis is not an invitation to the easy life. Genesis is interested in another reality. It will challenge the certainties and the language of the current regime. Preaching Genesis reminds us that working with a living God is an invitation to the unexpected. And that the success of preaching is not in our hands.

Preaching Genesis

Genesis is an invitation to a story about God and insists that we are part of this story. Genesis extends an invitation to reality itself. Not only the reality of God, but the relationship between creator and creation, especially His people. Genesis isn’t concerned about whether you and I agree that this is our story. Isn’t concerned with our debates whether it be myth or historical account. It is a theological affirmation, “in the beginning, God.” Genesis may be displeased if preaching becomes anything other than affirming the greatness of God.

Genesis gives a big picture but also becomes familiar and personal. Here we enter an arena where evil lurks and temptation is real, where flood and uncertainty are reality. But these are places where God is at work. His greatness is evidenced in His words, promise and blessing. Our preaching should follow the lead of Genesis and witness the greatness of God in situations that appear hopeless. Genesis wants us to know from the start that “And God said” is the driving force of all creation. And that people are central to his creation. Anything, everything we do is in response to “And God said.” Our preaching is but a response to “And God said…”

We are reminded that things have not changed much from the beginning. People can be disappointing. From the beginning people have struggled with desire. The urge to have a great name is not a modern notion. Genesis knows that we struggle with obedience so we are introduced to allies in the adventure of living as part of this story. People who are witnesses to the greatness of God. Our preaching should follow in their steps.

Walter Brueggemann structures Genesis in this way, a) 1-11 and b) 12-50, “God calls the world into being to be his faithful world” and “God calls a special people to be faithfully his people.” That makes Genesis a witness of these two calls. Brueggemann suggests that these calls must be taken together. The same God calls the world and the special community. Both creations, the world and the community of faith, have been evoked by the speech of God.

Therefore, we could say that preaching Genesis always has in mind the relationship between God, world, and community of faith. The implications are numerous. What is our relationship to God? His perspective of us? How does God view creation? How does creation respond to God? How are we to respond to creation in light of God’s view of it? How do we live among others who do not participate in the community of faith?  Genesis becomes important in our conversations about worship, stewardship, evangelism and a host of other topics.