Preaching as Lullaby

It is true that we do not know the songs Mary may have sung to Jesus and his brothers to help them sleep at night. But thanks to Luke we do know at least one song she sang during pregnancy. It is difficult to believe she would have only sung this one time. It was a song about scattering the proud and bringing down rulers. It was a song about lifting the humble and filling the hungry. Should we be surprised if her lullabies may have been a little political as well?

There is much to be made about tone, volume, and affect during communication. But the content of our communication is equally important. We might think of Mary as if she is a meek and mild Madonna who would sing only calming lullabies. Yet the content of her song has the language of a revolution. It may not have played on pop radio, but others likely sang similar songs if not this very same one. No wonder Herod the Great was so nervous. I suspect Luke would expect us to be as revolutionary in our preaching. I don’t know if the powers that be are nervous when we preach, but perhaps they should be.

Preaching Politics and Revelation (Not in that Order)

I am convinced that every four years (every presidential election) we should be preaching from the New Testament book of Revelation. It is obvious the church needs the perspective Revelation provides during this part of the political cycle. Revelation is written for the church. We know this from chapters 2-3. However, for many, chapters 2-3 appear out of context with the rest of the letter. These chapters firmly establish themselves on earth, in specific places that can be located on a map. Yet, the rest of the book is a bit more difficult to locate.

Many consider this a problem that complicates things. I suspect the opposite is actually true. These are not just random places but cities that are home to local churches. Churches that receive specific instruction and affirmation. It is likely Revelation wants us to recognize that the only way to navigate the cosmic mysteries and realities of Revelation is through the church. It is likely Revelation wants us to recognize that the only way to navigate politics is through the church.

So I find myself asking, why aren’t we preaching more Revelation? Revelation begins with Jesus. In fact a picture of Jesus like we have never seen before. And then, Revelation takes us to church. This is important for the Gospel is not for individuals. The Gospel is for a people. The Gospel is always an act of community, never a private exercise, always a political exercise.

It is no accident Revelation takes us to church right after meeting Jesus. One cannot have Christ without the church. We may want to. After meeting Jesus we may think we are ready to go straight to where the seven headed dragon is defeated or to the city where there is no night. But before any other cosmic scene, Revelation takes us to church. This is important because the only way to navigate any of the cosmic mysteries is through the church.

Seven congregations are addressed. No two of them are the same. Affirmations are different. Instruction is different. Each one is defined by its relationship with Jesus. A different sermon is preached to each one. Yet, in each of these churches, they are expected to listen. Listening becomes a theological activity. In a year where we are hearing a lot of words being spoken, the church is where we should be hearing a perspective that is not being preached anywhere else.

Each congregation is significant. Revelation gives details about local congregations because these matter to God. God is interested. His Son is walking among the lampstands. His Spirit is speaking to the Churches. These things matter right here, right now, this place, these people. It is not a fictitious group of saints but real people from real congregations who sing along with the rest of creation in chapter 5 and who receive the mark of the Lamb in chapter 14.

It is emphasized to the churches that earth’s politics are not enough. Rome falls short, Caesar is not in control. Even more, Satan is not in control and his beasts fall short. From the outset, Revelation is clear that Jesus is in control and tells us He can be found among the churches. Clearly, the church has an important role in eternal affairs. Clearly, we should be preaching this very perspective.

It is true, chapters 2-3 may appear out of place in Revelation. They appear so earthy compared to the cosmic out of this world stuff that comes before and after. This is exactly the point. The local church is set smack in the middle of a story with cosmic importance. The local church is set smack in the middle of a political story. The church plays a significant role in this story. Revelation wants us to know there is always more than meets the eye and the only way to see clearly is through the church. Preach it.

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.

Romans and Preaching

People arrived in Rome for a variety of reasons; commercial purposes, immigration, and some involuntarily as slaves. Some early Christians among them, they resided in areas where other foreigners were concentrated, including Jews. Jews and Christians would have had some things in common as they assembled in the synagogue and celebrated the feasts. However, the words and actions of the Christians likely sparked tension as things like observing the law and the inclusion of the Gentiles would have created some controversy. Eventually, this escalated to the point where Claudius evicted all Jews in AD 49.

The letter to the Romans is written with this knowledge in mind. Also, the knowledge that after Claudius had died the Jews who had been banished were permitted to return. Upon their return, it appears that all Jews were at a disadvantage in Rome and that Jewish Christians were at a disadvantage in the church. Paul writes the church at Rome in order to present a Christian perspective about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, inside and outside of the church.

A young emperor Nero was not yet antagonistic toward Christians at the time of writing. Still it was important to discuss how the church should live in this environment. While we do not find a theology of how to respond to the state, Romans does describe the state as a servant. Government is a gift from God to minister justice and peace. The church should not take justice in its own hands and should live as civil civilians.

There are some things about this relationship that remain blurry, other things become quite clear. Romans does not give the state divine permission to do as it pleases. The state does not mirror the will of God. There is no indication that the state rules now and the Lord will take over that role in the afterlife. Jesus is not, as Brian Zahnd said in a recent conference, “the secretary of after-life affairs.” He is Lord now. Jesus could not endorse the politics of Rome any more than He can endorse politics in America. He already brings His own politics. This would have been a significant downer for an emperor who promoted his own divinity and the emperor cult. He would not have been pleased to hear that he was servant to a God he did not know. Christians then, could not worship Nero but they could pay taxes.

Paul the letter writer desires to deal with questions that concern the people of God. Namely, how to live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. At a risk of oversimplification, the letter deals with the status of Gentiles who are not Christian (chapter 1). It deals with the condition of the Jews, then the condition of Christians (2-8). Discussion then focuses on non-Christian Jews (9-11). The letter concludes with a sermonic application of how all Christians should learn to live together in the non-Christian world (12-15).

Romans 12-15 works as a sermon from a distance that emphasizes that Christians live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. That is why we find there a sampling of gifts that are relevant to the Roman situation in the late 50’s. That is why we find Paul bringing up the theme of holiness or sanctification. When Paul talks about this subject he is not talking about ritual or theology. He is talking about behavior. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” The emphasis is not on the language one knows or uses but the behavior one exhibits. For Paul, as Romans makes clear, this is the behavior that must be demonstrated in the world.

Paul’s letters, including Romans, are theology in progress. Paul is not repeating doctrine that has already been articulated. As Ben Witherington suggests, he is theologizing as he writes. And his aim is always to shape the behavior of his churches. Theology is not theory for Paul, but a tool for creating community. The same could be said for preaching, then and now. Preaching is a tool to shape behavior and create community in a non-Christian world.

Preaching Isaiah

Isaiah is political. A very real political situation is spelled out clearly. But this has nothing to do with petty party arguments. There are much bigger things at stake here. Isaiah is interested in sovereignty. The plans of government are at odds with the plans of God. The political situation looks bleak but instead of advice Isaiah insists on bringing a word from God.

Isaiah preaches knowing that there are other things going on in the world. He does not ignore them. He does not minimize them. But neither does he sensationalize them. Instead, he enters the situation bringing the message he has been given. Preaching Isaiah we are reminded that no matter what else might be going on, no matter what else may be in need of our attention, speaking the word from God remains our priority.

This should affect the role of preaching. Every time we step up to preach there is something else going on. There is always something else, sometimes this other activity needs to be addressed. But, along with Isaiah, we realize that first we bring the word from God. There is a sense we get from Isaiah the prophet that once God’s word is spoken, nothing will ever be the same again. So we bring it, knowing that on account of it, everything changes.

It is equally interesting that Isaiah does not take this changing word to Assyria. He does not send it to Tiglath-Pileser, ruler of Assyria, hoping to persuade those with power at the top. Instead, he preaches to the people of God. Isaiah presents a strong implication that the way to change the world is to change the church. And so, when we stand up and bring the word from God to the church, we stand alongside the prophet in our belief that God changes the world by changing God’s people.

Preaching Isaiah is to be reminded that God does speak a particular word for a particular time and place. God has a word for specific times of history. This has implications for people like us in our specific situations. Isaiah knows that word is not always well received. Yet, word from God is to be preached where it is welcome and where it is not. This word can be harsh. And it can be hopeful. Comfort may be part of the message, but so may confrontation.

We do not come speaking words of our own. Like Isaiah, the best we can do is simply speak the words given us. Isaiah reminds us that the act of preaching is not about requesting permission to speak. The task of preaching is not to attract and satisfy listeners. Preaching Isaiah will remind us that preaching is not consumer driven. Preachers who allow themselves to be hijacked by culture will become as irrelevant as any other voices of culture that desire to be the flavor of the season.

Preaching Isaiah reminds us that we may be asked to say things we are not supposed to say to people we are not supposed to disagree with. When we preach the message of Isaiah, we will challenge things that others think are certain. Everyone was so certain that the power was in Assyria – except Isaiah. Isaiah reminds us that God is committed to revealing Himself through preaching.