Next weekend I will be in conversation with preachers about preaching the Gospels. Here are some things that we may highlight from the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John tells us there are so many stories about Jesus they cannot possibly fit in one book. In fact, John goes on to say the world could not possibly contain the books that would be written. Obviously, John wants us to know there is much that could be said about Jesus. He also wants us to know that the stories we find in this Gospel are written that we might believe.
This is emphasized from the very first chapter. There when Jesus meets Nathaniel, the episode ends with Jesus saying “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” Right away we hear the emphasis on belief and we get that John is not writing about Jesus’s skills of identifying who sits under what tree. As we near the end of the Gospel Jesus says to Thomas “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
In between these episodes, the chapters are full of sayings and signs and other stories that encourage us to believe. After all, John wants us to know that “These are written that you may believe… and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Later this month I will have the opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching (and am looking forward to it). Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one emphasis of our conversation.
Luke’s Gospel wants us to be sure to know there is enough gospel to go around. There are no quotas or limits. We do not have to budget gospel or worry that it will run out. In the gospel, Jesus is throwing good news around as if there is an endless supply. One of the questions Luke seems to ask is “How are things different now that Jesus has arrived?” and Luke’s Gospel seems to answer that question with “Let me tell you…”
Early in the Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon. (It is not well received. Perhaps it is good for us to discover here that not all sermons are well received. Perhaps we should evaluate our definition of success). In this sermon Jesus tells us how things are now different. There will be good news and freedom and recovery of sight and favor. The recipients include the poor and prisoners and blind and oppressed. We are supposed to catch on to the notion that there is enough gospel to go around. And this is only the beginning. Luke will give us multiple pictures of what that looks like.
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.
In July I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.
Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.
I am becoming convinced the Gospel wants us to be bi-lingual. Matthew, most of all, seems intent on teaching us a new language. Matthew speaks kingdom language. And his method is to saturate us in this language.
The Gospel does not want us to learn a new language just for the sake of learning. The Gospel wants us to be different. So Matthew gives us stories that are intended to change us. Not just stories for story sake, these are kingdom stories. Jesus tells these stories as if he is giving away the kingdom secrets.
The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not to stay in heaven. Matthew preaches to us “on earth as it is in heaven.” One of these secrets is about forgiveness. It is not enough to forgive as everyone else forgives. So Jesus tells a story about forgiveness. This is not only a story but an invitation. Jesus invites us to participate in a ministry of forgiveness. Forgiveness is kingdom language.
A quote to remind us the gospels were written with a purpose in mind;
“One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of ‘evangelists’ in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with problems of ‘sin’ and ‘hell.’ The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how his execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. The modern evangelists come right back with their theories, diagrams, and homely illustrations. The ancient writers eventually explode: ‘You’re just not listening!’ ‘Yes, we are,’ reply the modern preachers… ‘but you guys just aren’t saying the right stuff!’” (N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p. 197)
Mike Walters is currently serving as an adjunct professor for Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY. Previously, he served various roles at Houghton College in Houghton, NY. Before that, Mike served at Ohio Christian University which is where I first met him. Mike has authored two books. James: a Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition and Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship. Both are published by Wesleyan Publishing House.
I recently had the opportunity to hear Mike preach. In one of those sermons he claimed that he could be cantankerous at times. (He did not give opportunity for agreement or disagreement). Still, he is a preacher who intends to preach the things the text sees as important. He has an interest in what the text was written to do. I am pretty certain he would claim he is not smart enough to do anything else. He can only preach what is given by the text. Walters will work to keep the text in front of the listener. And sometimes he will allow the text to sneak up behind the listener. But he always wants the sermon to always be about the text.
Walters has preached enough sermons and taught enough preaching classes that he knows how to keep the text in the forefront. He will highlight small details that may be easily overlooked. He will visit his own personal history. He will use images from pop culture. He will quote theologians and monastics. He will make up his own phrases. But he only does any of these things in order to push forward the conversation about the text.
When listeners hear Walters talk about the bible they will realize that though culture appears to have changed a lot over the centuries, people patterns have not. Because of this, Walters is able to make characters of the bible recognizable. This is an important part of his preaching because he wants listeners to understand that God is quite familiar with characters like us. God has been working with the likes of you and me for a long time. The church is fortunate for the preaching ministry of Mike Walters.
Charles Kingsley Barrett is known to many as a New Testament scholar. Ben Witherington wants us to know he was a gifted preacher as well. Ben has been working through Barrett’s sermons and has this to say to us in the New Year… “Better Preaching in the New Year Please!” The following is Ben’s post from January 8, 2017.
In working through C.K. Barrett’s 300 sermons, and comparing them to what I regularly hear traveling around the country, namely sermons that make me wince, I have come to the following conclusion:
Frankly, I have grown weary of sermons that have illustrations which do not illustrate the point of the appointed Biblical text, story sermons only loosely connected to the Bible, and in general sermons based on the perceived wants and needs of the congregation rather than on the substance of the subject matter of the Bible, in short, sermons with little Biblical or Wesleyan content that amount to little more than words of general encouragement or some sort of ethical harangue.
As Mr. Wesley was want to say to his preachers—you are not called upon to preach your experience, however profound, your opinions however lofty, your tradition however noble, or your own logic, however reasonable. No, you are called to preach the Bible in season and out of season, when it is well-received and when it is poorly received. And as CKB was apt to emphasize, it was not about the preacher and his eloquence. If Jonah could put his hand over his mouth and weakly utter ‘repent’ and ‘all Nineveh’ responded to God’s call, then surely it is mostly about the message, the living Word of God, powerful and active, and not so much about the messenger.