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.”

A First Century Sermon to a Congregation in Crisis

Late in the first century the church in Ephesus was in crisis. We know this for certain from Revelation “you have left your first love”, but the letters of John are a good indicator as well. Second and Third John tell of an apparent church split. Those who have left are trying to deceive those who remain. The author gives warnings, commends faithfulness and emphasizes a commandment to love. The author has more to say but does not wish to do this in letters. He wants to talk face to face.

It is a possibility that First John is the face to face message promised in Second and Third John. A sermon preached to those remaining in the churches with the emphasis to love one another. Perhaps a sermon the author preached when he visited the congregation addressed in the other letters. At the very least, we can say that this is a sermon that circulated throughout the congregations in Ephesus and surrounding areas.

From the beginning of First John, we know that the author was strongly influenced by Jesus. The author is an eyewitness and an earwitness of Jesus. He has had time to contemplate the meaning of the words and actions of Jesus. He has had close fellowship with Jesus, he has even touched Jesus. The author, in the words of Ben Witherington, “casts his audience into the larger story of the universal battle between darkness and light, love and hate, fellowship and schism, which has been going on since Genesis 3.” This larger story becomes very real for the local churches of John’s community. This is evidenced by the influence that antichrists, false teachers, hate and sin have had on these congregations.

We can propose the following as a possible relational cycle. Jewish Christians had reached out in love to Jews near Ephesus. Some of these Jews began worshiping with the congregation and may have become known by others, perhaps even served in official roles. Disagreements arose regarding the identity of Jesus and people began leaving the congregation. Influential Jews may have tried to persuade others to leave with them. The letters of John were written in response to this situation. The letters emphasized the true identity of Jesus and the ongoing love that must be practiced by those that remain in the community.

If this relational cycle is accurate, First John may be an effort to prevent others from leaving the congregation while encouraging them to continue in love. Those who remained may have needed a strengthened identity and sense of community. The author appears to share a text at 2.7 “an old commandment.” A text the audience would be familiar with. The preacher shares it and proclaims its reality into the congregational situation. He does not debate; he proclaims and repeats it again and again. He keeps circling around to his primary theme. He keeps stressing the need to love God and one another.

The author knows that Jesus, love, and God are inseparable. This is surely no accident. Congregations must not be influenced by people who separate these things. If I John is a sermon, it is one preached with great emotion. This is evident at times by soft caring words, at times by strong harsh words. It encourages healing. It is always pastoral. The preacher uses contrast. At one point he seems to illustrate with a song. The preacher uses family terminology for this family of faith. At all points, it is evident that he is greatly influenced by Jesus. If First John is a sermon, then it is helpful to see how one who walked with Jesus addresses a congregation in crisis.