A Relational Adventure

We sometimes treat Paul’s letter to the Romans as if it is the apostle’s theory about gospel or his magnum opus of theological insights. Yet Romans is a letter. It is a specific word to a specific people in a specific situation. We should be reading Romans as a relational adventure.

We sometimes have treated it as if all that matters are the greatest hits. We pick the parts we like and treat the rest like b sides. We act as if the selected parts tell us everything we need to know about Romans.  “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” and “For all have sinned…” and “For the wages of sin is death…” and “All things work together for good…” and “If God is for us…” and “Offer your bodies a living sacrifice…” I think you get the idea.

Just saying, we tend to read Romans with presuppositions. We convince ourselves that here we have discovered the straight road to salvation. This is a certain way to miss out on a wild and unsettled Romans that is an important part of our adventure. I suspect this is a constant problem for the church. We spend a great deal of effort cleaning up the messy parts of the bible to convince ourselves of clear principles that do not match with the messiness of real life. This has likely caused many to decide the bible is not for them.

N. T. Wright has said that Romans “sweeps you along on a tide of extraordinary writing and glorious hope.” He also says “it plunges you not only into gloom, but into serious puzzles, knotty intellectual problems, and arguments that will make you wonder whether St. Paul is losing his balance…” I enjoy Wright’s description because it moves us toward Romans as an adventure.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa claims we tend to read it “as if we ride through Romans on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses, seeing the same highlights every time…” Reading Romans this way will cause us to miss out on what Romans is saying and we will fail to see that the “metropolitan area is larger, more astonishing, and more disturbing than we imagine.”

Romans is literature that sees church and world in realistic ways, including the clumsy messes where we sometimes find ourselves. Even more, Romans highlights the significance of God’s action on behalf of the church and the world. Gaventa cautions us about the twists and turns on the path that is Romans. And she gives warning that it will take us “into a gospel far more vast than we usually imagine, and that gospel may take us places we would prefer not to go.”

An Advent Sermon

“An Unorthodox Christmas Announcement.” Mark 3.1-6.

Take a look at Christmas cards you have received. Christmas cards you have sent. Christmas cards still on the shelves at the store. You will find manger scenes and shepherd scenes. You will find wise men traveling from afar. You will find quaint scenes of evergreens in winter. You will find animals with snow in the background. You will find Santa. Guess who you will not find – John the Baptist.

Yet the birth of Jesus is significantly tangled up with the birth of John the Baptist. Just read the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. What does John bring to this season we call Advent? What does he have to say to us at this time of year? John is a bit of an oddity. He has long hair and an untrimmed beard. He never cut his hair. Those guys at Duck Dynasty were not the first to sport that look. He had a strange diet. He did not receive many RSVPS’ for his holiday open house. Most of us prefer something other than locusts at our gatherings.

We cannot help but notice that Mark starts his Gospel by telling us this is about the good news of Jesus and then immediately begins talking about John the Baptist. John interrupts the Gospel. Just as he interrupts history. Just as he interrupts Advent and our holiday plans. John disrupts our lives to tell us that now is the time to prepare for the one coming.

John was a preacher. He preached that one was coming. Fred Craddock tells us he was no candle in the sanctuary, more like a bonfire in the wilderness. A stump would serve as his pulpit. The sun and moon served as his chandeliers. John was a wild man. Guys like this fascinate me. I have purchased books just because the word wild was in the title. I like to emphasize the wild in wilderness.

It is true, at Christmas we overlook John as we think of others. Mary and Joseph come to mind. Even King Herod seems more a part of the story than John. We are more likely to think of George Bailey, Clark Griswald or Scott Calvin than John as someone who belongs this time of year. No wonder he is often overlooked.

Yet there is something about John that seems to fit perfectly for Advent. Our text says that John came as a messenger to prepare the way for the one coming. John is always pointing toward the coming one. The gospel tells us that even while in the womb he leaped for joy when pregnant Mary walked into the room. This does not stop when he becomes an adult. He comes to “Prepare the way for the one coming.” He tells us “After me comes the one more powerful than I… I am not worthy to take off his sandals… I baptize with water – he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

The only son of a priest would have had responsibilities and obligations to his family and to society. He was supposed to be a priest. He was supposed to marry and have children who would grow up to be priests. At some point John turned his back on this obligation. He turned his back on everything most important for one born into his position and headed for the wilderness. And there he announced that one was coming.

John is a reminder that our significance is not found in ourselves. Our significance is not because of our skills, our histories, our futures or our upside. Our significance, our very identity is found outside ourselves – in our relationship to Jesus. We cannot discover who we really are by taking a deeper look inside ourselves. The self-help section at Barnes and Noble cannot help us here. John the Baptist tells us, our identity is in Jesus. Identity and significance is found beyond mother and father and family. John reminds us we find who we really are in relationship to the one who is coming.

It is Advent. I am the un-Baptist. I may like to think I am drawn to the wilderness. Yet I live in modern convenience. John is eating locusts and wild honey. I am trying to include greens and whole grains into my diet. John is wearing camel’s hair clothes. I am looking for something more comfortable. But John reminds me of an important Advent truth. My identity comes from outside myself. I can only know who I really am in relationship to Jesus.

Do not expect a Christmas card with John the Baptist on the front. Do not expect Macy’s to include him in a display to help sell merchandise. It would be a surprise to find someone hanging an ornament to commemorate his role in the story. Yet he is not here by accident. As then, John points us toward the one who caused him to leap while still in his mother’s womb. As then, he points us toward Jesus.

Highlight the Tension

One task of preaching is certainly to highlight tension, both in text and life. This is unavoidable because text and life are both full of tension. Both acknowledge predictability and unpredictability. Both expect us to acknowledge value in someone even when we do not agree with them. Numerous other tensions emerge as we walk through the day or the text. Perhaps most of the tension highlighted in preaching comes down to human ways are not the same as the ways of God.

Preaching knows about our tendency to overlook things that are important (we are uncomfortable with too much tension). Yet, we do not want to avoid the tension, we must not. This is much too important. Preaching desires we experience the human dilemma. So much so it insists we return to it repeatedly. Preaching insists we make important things important.

Preaching does not attempt to make anyone out to be a monster, even those at odds with the ways of God. It is never the intent of preaching to isolate individuals, preaching is interested in relationship, even with those who demonstrate bad behavior. Preaching is not coercive; it prefers to highlight the tension between human ways and the ways of God. Using the platform of preaching to impose the preacher’s will is just another form of violence (a human way). Instead preaching reflects the ways of God who does not impose His will but continually invites and welcomes us into relationship.

Biblical Text and Specific Situations

Elizabeth Achtemeier once said that all sermons should be firmly anchored in a particular text or texts and should grow out of the biblical Word of God.  “Otherwise the sermon is all too likely to end up proclaiming the preacher’s or society’s opinions, and those have no transforming power or lasting authority about them.”

Achtemeier goes on to emphasize that the preacher must understand how the particular text fits into the context of the Bible as a whole.  “The entire biblical history of God’s saving work, from the call of Abraham to the time of the New Testament church, informs every sermon and sets every individual text in the context of God’s whole self-revelation.”

Perhaps the most notable thing about these statements in that they occur in her book Preaching About Family Relationships.  This was one in a series published by Westminster Press to focus on preaching and the problems of the people.  The obvious benefit of such a series is the reminder that the Gospel addresses specific situations.  The danger of such a series is that we may be tempted to think that some passages are not addressed to particular people who do not find themselves in that particular situation.

I think that Achtemeier would agree that the purpose of preaching is not to improve relationships.  Preaching expects to shape followers.  Relationships may improve as a result.  But, growth in relationship is not the good news we showed up to proclaim.

One of the things that stands out to me as I read her book is her recognition that there are many passages in the Bible that do not directly discuss family matters and yet are applicable to family life.  “In fact, there are almost no biblical texts that cannot be applied to family life, because the whole of the Christian faith bears on the way we relate to one another in our homes, just as it bears on everything we do and say in our neighborhoods and society and world.”

I don’t think she would mind if I tag onto her statement that there are almost no biblical texts that cannot be applied to any of our situations, because the whole of the Christian faith bears on each of us and all of us.  Amen Elizabeth.