About Sermon Prep

I am serving in a generous congregation that wants to make sure they compensate the preacher fairly. A question then, that came up more than once was “How long does it take to prepare a sermon?” Others may disagree, but I think it’s a difficult question to answer. In order to preach a sermon the preacher must pull from every place visited, every person met, every conversation held, every family get together, every book read… for every sermon the preacher pulls from a lifetime of experiences.

I suppose one could start the clock on a Monday, select a text, consult outside resources, and arrive at a finished product by Sunday. But that sounds like a recipe for a boring sermon.

Because of this dilemma, well-meaning consultants like Bill Tenny-Brittian and Bill Easum have offered consultation. Their solution, spend less than two hours a week on the sermon. Preach a sermon from a great preacher who writes great “sermons that rock people’s lives” (their words not mine). A short list of such preachers include Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, Adam Hamilton (their list not mine).

I want to point out I think they are well meaning Christians who want to see the church grow. They demonstrate common sense. They are helpful in terms of efficiency. They demonstrate acceptable ethical suggestions. But the fact remains, this is not the way to prepare a sermon. It is the un-carnational version of sermon prep.

The preacher should be who they are in the pulpit and never pretend to be someone else. A sermon is local and specific and incarnational. The sermon brings together God and text and congregation in a specific place and time.

Still, we cannot deny the necessity of reading, listening to, and learning from others. I like what Scot McKnight says about this. “To be sure, nearly every sermon emerges from books and sermons and ideas and all sorts of things that are used. But it is bricolage, it is quilting,it is convergence – it is precisely those things and not simple usage of others.” I rather like that description of piecing a sermon together. He goes on “Taking someone’s sermon destroys the bricolage and turns it into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.”

This is exactly why preachers should spend time with the people. If they do not, I am not sure they will have anything to say. This is why preachers read and watch movies and follow plot. This is why preachers listen carefully to text and carefully to the stories of people. This is why nearly any activity becomes a new source for sermon prep. Only by spending the necessary time to engage in these things will they be able to participate meaningfully in the conversation between text and people on a Sunday morning.

To Be Mastered by the Whole Story

Scot McKnight is convinced we misunderstand the Kingdom story. If I understand him correctly, he is suggesting we understand some specifics but often try to apply them outside their intended context. We are trying to live out bullet points in a narrative story. Our knowledge and efforts are sometimes misdirected because we lack the overall structure that allows us to live the Kingdom story to its fullest.

McKnight suggests we have been somewhat effective at teaching content and beliefs and creeds. This includes the personal salvation story. However, we have not been as effective at teaching how to live together as those who have experienced salvation.

One proposal from Kingdom Conspiracy is that we become better at exposing ourselves to all the grand themes of the bible. We want to read and reread the bible “so that we will learn what it says and be reminded of what we have forgotten.” This is not about turning everyone into bible students. This is about the local church doing its job of exposing one another to the whole bible. This includes preaching the whole bible story. Too often, preachers have been guilty of treating scripture as top forty radio, replaying our favorites over and over again. McKnight would have us preach the bible, front to back, again and again, “to master that story and be mastered by that story.”

Preaching and Politic

Between now and the election candidates will do their best to convince us that party politics fit nicely with the Kingdom of God. More specifically they will try to convince us that the Kingdom fits nicely with their personal vision for the country. In a further effort to convince us, some will even share their vision in sanctuaries and from pulpits.  The fact is, the Kingdom cannot fit into any of these artificial temporary structures (think new wine in old wineskins). It would be like nominating Jesus for president. Why would we try to limit His authority to the United States? His vision is much bigger than that.

I am not opposed to political action (the fact is, I can be quite opinionated about these things). However, I am opposed to the church thinking any political party or candidate speaks for them. Anytime the church becomes bedfellows with any lesser kingdom we will find an unfaithful church.

Taken to its extreme, one side of American politics positions government as a god. Government will become responsible for us, will care for us, and will deliver us from the evils and injustices of this world. At the other extreme, the individual is placed in position as a god. The individual becomes responsible for self, provides for self, and delivers self from evils and doubts. Both of these extremes belong to the same systemic problem that gives allegiance to something other than God and disregards the reality that only God is able to deliver.

This is not a call to solve society’s problems or to ignore them. The fact is, our worldview expects that we will be doing good whenever and wherever we are able. We just do not want to fall into the trap of thinking we can change the world by using the ways of the world. This presents us with obvious challenges. At our best, our struggle of how to go about work in the public sector is connected to a desire to influence as many as possible. At our worst, our struggle of how to work in the public sector suggests a lack of confidence in the plan of God and Jesus as King.

Government is gift but it is not the way of the Kingdom. Winning the culture wars is not the same as the Kingdom story. Our confidence is in King Jesus and our politic begins by gathering in His name. Our politic goes further by acknowledging His Kingship and following His Kingdom vision. This includes being salt and light. But as Scot McKnight says in Kingdom Conspiracy, “the best way to be salt and light is not to coerce the rest of the nation through political power but to witness to an alternative reality by living out the kingdom vision of Jesus in our local church.”

McKnight’s discussion about peace may be helpful here and we can use the same process with a number of other issues. Nearly everyone agrees with the idea of peace but most who talk about it are talking world peace or nuclear disarmament or stopping ethnic wars. The New Testament, on the other hand, keeps talking about peace in the church. Our tendency is to politicize peace but we are actually called to “seek peace in our local fellowship”, to “seek reconciliation with God and with one another”, and “out of this peace-shaped, kingdom shaped church we spill over peace into the world.” If the church is not shaped like peace “Why should the world care what the church believes about peace?”

Any preaching that encourages us to cast confidence in any political kingdom is not in step with preaching about the Kingdom of God. Such preaching implies that things are ok as they are and that the way to change the world is through politics. Such preaching suggests the salvation plan of Jesus is not sufficient on its own and requires help from someone who holds real power.

Preaching should call us to be living as if King Jesus is ruling now. We are not looking for someone else to run things for us here; we are participants in an alternative vision. Ecclesia describes a political gathering. So does Kingdom. This does not make us part of the current political process. It does make our preaching in this political gathering a significant word about what it means to live under the rule of King Jesus.

Preaching a Genealogy

It is noteworthy that when we open the text we call the New Testament, the first thing we find is a genealogy. Some of us read it as if it is interesting to Matthew but has little to say to us. Others as if it is necessary history before getting to the good stuff. Still others do not even read it at all. In reality, it is not our place to dismiss some scripture as irrelevant or uninteresting. There are likely a number of reasons Matthew included genealogy and not one of them considers Matthew 1 as optional reading. This is Gospel.

Matthew wants us to know from the start that much has already happened. Generations and years have passed and God is interested in all of it. God is deeply committed to His chosen people. While people may stray, God does not. When people lose their way, God is committed to bringing them back. Matthew wants them to know that no matter what happens, He is “God with us.”

Scot McKnight, in A Fellowship of Differents, talks about “the story of Israel that morphs into the story of the Kingdom and the story of the Church.” I propose that this genealogy is an important piece of this story. The genealogy is more than information about one family of Middle Eastern origin. It is an introduction to a family of faith that God is deeply involved with and deeply committed to. We become part of this family and are included among the people with whom God chooses to dwell. We become evidence that God is involved with the world and has invested everything that we might receive salvation.

The genealogy reminds us that God has intervened in history through multiple situations and with multiple people. No matter what goes wrong, God does not give up His great desire to be with us. The genealogy reminds us that each of us are born into an already existing story. Our stories are connected to a bigger story, a story that includes Messiah. Matthew 1 prompts us to explore the commitment of God to be with His people since the beginning.  And to recognize His most serious move to be with us is Jesus.

The more we read this genealogy the more we realize God’s interest in people groups like nations and families. God is interested in communicating salvation through common forms of relationship. The Messiah comes through the flesh and blood history of a family. By the time we arrive to the New Testament we are aware that God views salvation as a relational project. We preach knowing that God’s work among people groups is not finished. God continues to work through such groups – primarily the one we call Church.

The genealogy reminds us how theological history can be. Ben Witherington talks about this in The Indelible Image. God becomes involved in the messy events of human history. Indeed, God enters it in the person of Jesus. The more we read the genealogy, the more we realize that this is an unlikely group to be chosen for passing the torch of God’s Good News. Even among the chosen, some things do not happen as we would like. The genealogy acknowledges this reality along with the reality of God’s presence. Certainly there were better candidates with more stability and better decision-making skills. Yet, this is the people God chose to bring the Gospel into the messy events of human history.

Preaching Matthew 1 should encourage a look around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. What will we see? An unlikely group? Not the group you would have chosen? Still, this is the collection of people God has assembled to call His own. This is the family He chooses to dwell among as “God with us.”

Reading the Bible Well

There is a chapter in Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet that is subtitled “What Does God Want to Happen to Listeners?” Bravo McKnight! Excellent question! He starts by discussing Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine and finds it to be both annoying and delightful. Annoying on account of Augustine’s questionable exegesis. Delightful because of Augustine’s premise that the Bible’s main mission is “that we can become people who love God and love others.”

Reading the bible well does involve certain skills. We need to be attentive to genre and structure. We need to be aware of audience and context. It is helpful to learn of resources that help us to understand these things. But reading the bible well does not end with scholarship. Reading the bible well ends with disciples. People who desire to follow Jesus and therefore practice what is learned in the bible. People who act on what it is to love God and one another. McKnight says that the bible, “is to give us facts so that we will move those facts into relationship, character, and action.”

McKnight calls out II Timothy 3.14-17 as a mission statement for the bible. He goes on to say that “God speaks to us so we will be the kind of people he wants and will live the way he wants us to live.” He asks “what do we want our students to be and to be able to do?” There is a difference in asking what we want students to know and asking what they “are able to do with what they know.”

McKnight wants us to know that when reading the bible we are reading the words of God. So he highlights that the Spirit “takes words on paper and turns them into the living presence of God speaking to us.” Our reading then, is relational. We are listening to words from God. He goes on to say that what leads the reader into a life of good works “is the promise that the Spirit who hovered over the author is the same Spirit at work in the reader.”

The bible does not aim to make us scholars, but to be followers. “God designs all biblical study to be a useful process that leads us to the bible in such a way that it creates a person who loves God and loves others.” When we read the bible well we are being shaped, formed, and changed. McKnight says that we are changed “from what we are into what God wants us to be.”

He concludes the chapter talking about good works and offers as a definition; “good works are concrete responses to the needs we see in our neighbors.” Then he adds that the question is not what good works are but whether we are doing them. McKnight then responds to II Timothy 3.14-17 like this; 1) if you are doing good works, you are reading the bible aright. 2) if you are not doing good works, you are not reading the bible aright. “If you are in the first group, keep it up; if you are in the second group, make some changes.”

To Obey or Not to Obey?

Some friends and I have been reading The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight. In a chapter subtitled “What Do We Do and What Do We Not Do in the Bible?” he looks at Leviticus 19 and asks how we know what to pick and what not to pick when we read the chapter. It is a good question. He includes an exercise where he asks others to vote on what commands from the chapter are important to obey and which are not. No matter the results, one thing we likely agree on is that Leviticus is no less Word of God than other books of the bible.

While we still preach the importance of being holy and of not spreading slander, the rest of the chapter we seem to dismiss. We do not keep the Sabbath. We do not harvest only a portion of crops. We do not worry about planting two kinds of seed. We do not worry about garments made of two kinds of material. We do not worry about eating medium rare meat. We do not worry about cutting the hair at the sides of our head or trimming our beards. We do not think that tattoos are sinful. We do not think it is sin to stay seated when old folks walk into the room.

McKnight is correct to point out that Moses is not just giving suggestions for students who would like to live as he does. These are commands that are rooted in the holiness of God. Yet, we dismiss most of the commands found in Leviticus 19. So, McKnight concludes (rationally I must say) that either we are wrong in our dismissal of these commands or we have categories that help us to know what to apply in our lives and what not to. We tell ourselves that these commands are from a bygone era. Or that these commands are part of some Old Testament code or levitical code or holiness code or a ceremonial code but not a code for us. What we would like is to have a code that reveals what we must obey, what is unnecessary and what is not even recommended.

McKnight goes on to note that “smack-dab in the middle of this chapter” we find “love your neighbor as yourself.” Somehow we know, probably because of what Jesus said, that this command is applicable to us today. McKnight asks some pretty good questions and sums them up with; “Essentially the church has always taught that the times have changed and we have learned from New Testament patterns of discernment what to do and what not to do.”

Something that may be worth saying about the laws in Leviticus and elsewhere is that the bible is more than laws and that each law is connected to a particular context. Something that I think McKnight does brilliantly is ask the questions that many have asked quietly. By putting these questions out there it validates the questions of others and reminds us that it is ok to wrestle with the words from God. To my friends who have been trying to get me to read McKnight for some time, I should have listened to you sooner.