On Earth as it is in Heaven

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.

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When Gospel Enters Darkness

Next month, July 29, 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.

The Gospel is not content with safe territory. In fact, Gospel seems to be drawn toward darkness. On account of that, we acknowledge risk when we carry the Gospel with us. To bring Gospel into darkness is to enter a battleground. While it might be paranoia to expect an evil spirit behind every tree, it is naïve to ignore the reality that there is more going on than the eye can see. The Gospel of Mark takes us into that territory. To be in the Gospel of Mark is to be saturated with powers and darkness and the question “who rules the realm?” The Gospel may be the story of the Son of God but humans and powers of darkness are woven into the story.

We might wish for something like “Ten Ways to Slay a Demon.” Instead, we find a story. And this story reminds us that every step of kingdom work is a step into heavily defended territory.

A Written Sermon

“Everyone Travels with a Text” (Genesis 12.1-9)

Abraham becomes famous in Genesis chapter 12. But we meet him one chapter earlier where he is a nomad. He is old, childless and he serves the gods that culture offers up, just like everyone else does. He is an unlikely candidate to be on the cover of Time Magazine. Yet, there he was on September 30, 2002. Everything changed for Abraham when he received a text “Go… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

It is important to know that all of us begin the year with a text. It does not matter whether we are looking for one or not. We have a text and it will shape the path we follow. We read a text today. Before it was our text, it was Abraham’s text. Abraham, one raised to serve other gods, Abraham, old and childless receives this text. He was told to “Go… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” It is of interest to us that when he received this text, Abraham gives up the texts he has heard before. He stops listening to those other texts and heeds this text.

Genesis makes it clear to us what Abraham’s text is. It is less clear what our own text might be. The text we choose to live by may not be so obvious. Still each of us live by a text. Sometimes we think if we did not have the biblical text, we would have no text at all. But everyone lives by a text, known or unknown.

If we are not listening to the biblical text, other texts will take over. Many texts are waiting to move in and guide our lives. Genesis may suggest that these other texts are less adventurous, less reliable and shallow. Still the texts of culture tempt us. In desperate moments we borrow from them or even partially commit to them. We regularly find ourselves with people who are haunted by the question “Is there a text that can make sense of my life?” I propose Abraham was one of those people. That is until he received this text.

From that time on this text became Abraham’s constant companion. Genesis says Abraham went forth. Everywhere he went, this text, this promise, was present. We read that he is in Canaan, among the Canaanites, these words were with him. He was to live by this text while surrounded by people who do not know this text. He was to live by this text among people who follow different texts.

I cannot help but stop here and ask “What does it mean to be where we are and surrounded by others who live differently? What does it mean to be listening to words no one else is listening to? Are we secret operatives who carry news that can save the world? Are we spies who deliver news to a land that has not heard this news before? Are we couriers who belong to some revolution? What reason do we have for living by a text so different than what others live by? Genesis suggests it is because “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Perhaps we should be surprised that Abraham receives this text at all. After all, humans were originally a critical part of the plan. The role they are to play in creation is significant. People are the image bearers of the Creator – the representatives of God in the world. But people drop the ball. Not just once but multiple times. Yet, in a surprise move God does not give up on people. God does not abandon the plan. He still calls people to stand at the dangerous intersection where heaven and earth meet. That is where we find ourselves today. Ever since Abraham received this text.

I think of the way the book of Job is introduced with a meeting in the heavens and I imagine that something like that might have taken place with Abraham. I sometimes wonder about the days when the sons of God, Satan among them, presented themselves before the Lord. I wonder if on one of those days the Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” And Satan would reply “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”

And then Satan would continue, “I know that you desire humans be your image bearers, your representatives on earth. But the human experiment has been a disaster. They disappoint at every turn. Do you remember what happened in Eden? Have you forgotten the corruption of the days of Noah? Must I remind you what they were doing at Babel? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that humans will never become the representatives you had hoped for.”

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered the human Abraham? I have selected him to leave his home. His descendants will be many and his reputation will bring me glory. The whole earth will be influenced by this plan.”

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Have you considered his age? Have you considered he is childless and his wife is barren?” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, watch this plan change the world.”

Abraham and Sarah are introduced in a way to show this is still God’s plan. People are a blessing to the world. But, God has a specific people in mind. A particular family who are living by a particular text. Abraham and Sarah are called to reverse the problems of Adam and Eve. As God was present in Eden he will dwell with his people who live by his words.

The biblical text is a necessary companion of the church. At times the difficulties cause the church to try to travel without portions of the text. Yet the people of God and the word of God belong together. Each of them is incomplete without the other. Each helps to make sense of the other.

Still we are constantly turning the page to find yet another challenge from the text. We cannot shrug it off because we do not like where it is going. We should not attempt to move past these parts quickly or quietly. Like Abraham we do not know exactly where this text will lead. We do not know exactly what happens next. But we must take this text seriously. Because we know that a promise was given to a particular people that says “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

A Christmas Sermon

“Prophets and Kings” (Matthew 2.1-12)

We sometimes talk about the first testament in the bible (we often call it the Old Testament) as if it is an assortment of stories. As a series of stories that fit loosely together. However, when we read more carefully we discover it is a single great story. It is a story that is pointing to something big. It is a story that lets us in on the fact that old Israel was playing a critical role in a great drama. But the drama did not end with the conclusion of the Old Testament.

Through much of that grand story there is a strong undercurrent, something simmering, a repeated theme. David, in spite of his flaws, was a good king. Every king since has been less than David. Ever since, Israel is always looking for the next king like David.

Ever since David was king, kings have been born in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the place of the palace. That makes Matthew’s reference to an old prophecy somewhat a surprise. The old prophecy tells us that hope for the future is not in Jerusalem. It is time to go back to Bethlehem where David was born. The old prophecy is not only talking about a place but also a hope for a king like David.

The prophet is interested in a different kind of king because the kings of Jerusalem have become satisfied. The kings do not care for anyone other than themselves. The prophet says the solution is to return to humble beginnings. The prophet says it is time to go back to Bethlehem. The word used to describe Bethlehem literally means “insignificant” or “youngest.” Like Bethlehem, David was least significant in his family and the youngest of his brothers. The prophet reminds us that true kingship lies in the humble, insignificant roots of David and not the arrogant power hungry courts of the king.

Matthew inserts this prophecy into the story about a king who leaned toward the arrogant side. King Herod had already murdered two sons and his wife. He intended to keep his power, keep his throne safe and eliminate anyone who may have been a threat. And then the Magi show up. The Magi show up and ask “Where is He born King of the Jews?” The Magi show up and everyone gets nervous at the palace. Those same Magi who seem so trouble free in our nativity scenes show up and Matthew tells us that King Herod becomes “disturbed.”

The Magi may be surprise visitors who come from afar. The Magi have such good intentions; they show up bringing extravagant gifts. The Magi show up at the palace thinking this is the place one born King of the Jews may be found. The Magi show up and announce “We have come to worship Him.” King Herod hears this and becomes “disturbed.”

King Herod begins scheming already and asks where this one born King of the Jews may be found. He is told about the old document that contains the old prophecy that says the newborn King of the Jews will be born not in a palace but in Bethlehem. That same Bethlehem considered to be the least of places. That same Bethlehem where the great king David was born.

King Herod is scheming. That is what kings of earth do. They scheme, they plot, they make plans to keep their power. It is no surprise Herod is disturbed by the old prophecy. It is no surprise Herod is disturbed by the visit form the Magi. These things suggest he has been ruling all wrong. These things suggest he is not the rightful king. These things suggest that being king is something different than what he has been doing.

Just like the old prophecy said, just like King David, the newborn child King Jesus was born in the insignificant little town of Bethlehem. Like David, Jesus demonstrates that being king is found in humility.

The Gospel of Matthew is well aware of Bethlehem’s status. Matthew is also aware that Bethlehem is now the birthplace of two great kings. The old prophecy is not a romantic reminder to prompt us to begin a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The old prophecy is announcing that things are changing and that things have changed. This is the disturbing truth of God’s plan. Being king is not about wealth but justice. Living in this new kingdom is not about power but love.

This will not be popular with kings of the earth. This has never been popular with those who hold the power. But the old prophecy is part of a single great story that points us in a specific direction. This story does not point us to a little town that has become the birthplace of great kings. But to One who has been born the rightful King. One who does not rule like the earthly kings. One who rules in humility and love. One whose arrival we celebrate this day. And on account of that we can sing glory to God in the highest and glory to God on High Street.

An Advent Sermon

“Into the Darkness” (Isaiah 9.1-7)

It is possible that when you hear Isaiah 9 read out loud you can hear the Hallelujah Chorus playing in your head. Some of you might be humming the tune right now. Before Handel wrote that song, Isaiah sang it. Isaiah’s song takes us to faraway places by the sea like Zebulun and Naphtali. Lands that have known gloom and anguish and contempt. Isaiah’s song is a trip into darkness.

Darkness is a metaphor we use often. We have a pretty good idea what it means. If someone tells us we live in darkness we have an idea what they are talking about. If told we are against the night, we know that is something more than protesting when the sun goes down.

If you are familiar with rock band Led Zeppelin, you may have heard the song “Battle for Evermore.” The song has lyrics like “The dark lord rides in force tonight” and “Side by side we wait the might of the darkest of them all” and “Well the night is long, the beads of time pass slow.” If you are like me, pictures come to mind when you hear lyrics like that. I am thinking that if Isaiah would have known of Led Zeppelin he may have played that on his I-pod. Before we go further it is probably safe to say we are the only church in town who have talked about both “The Hallelujah Chorus” and Led Zeppelin this morning.

Isaiah wants us to know we are waiting in darkness. He wants us to understand things are not ok the way they are. So Isaiah gives us darkness. But he also gives us light. Our text almost seems out of place. The prior chapter was a message of distress, gloom, despair and darkness. It was a warning that people will be overwhelmed by the enemy. Directly after our text we learn that disaster has already struck the neighbors. In between, our text tells us “People who walk in darkness will see a great light.” And then, “Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.”

Isaiah likes to mix things up like this. His recipes include disaster mixed with peace. Despair mixed with hope. Darkness mixed with light. We know that darkness and light go together because our lives tell us they do. This time of year half the day is darkness. Not one of us has experienced a lifetime of only joy. We know disaster and despair. We know what it is like to be waiting in the dark. Isaiah is talking to people who know darkness all too well. He speaks to people who wonder if there will ever be light. To people who wonder if the darkness will ever end. Surrounded by darkness, Isaiah offers “People who walk in darkness will see a great light.”

It is into this darkness Isaiah sings the words “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government…” Yes Isaiah is talking about politics again. He is talking about a king who will be the evidence that God reigns. This king has more the one admirable trait. This list goes on “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

At this time of year we would do ourselves a disservice if we did not find ourselves in the Gospel. It is of interest that Matthew 4 takes us back to the dark lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (sound familiar?). Matthew tells us we are going back there in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet. It is not surprising to find a gospel text about a certain son of a carpenter who starts to preach about a kingdom of heaven. When he came, he came to a world where we were waiting in the dark. Matthew doesn’t say the words out loud but we know where he is going with this. If you are like me you picture the first Christmas as a night scene. This text would have us know the light shining into the darkness of that scene is not a star, but a child. And we are reminded that we were already given the words “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government…”

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.

A Chorus of Witnesses

According to Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., students of preaching should “study great sermons, learn their moves, and master some of their aims and forms.” This is not unlike the reason “aspiring composers study Haydn symphonies and Bartok string quartets” and “serious chess players learn the great games of Tanasch and Capablanca” and “army generals master the battle plans of strategic and tactical experts from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.”

This is good reason for A Chorus of Witnesses, a collection of sermons that the reader may “ponder, inspect, disassemble, praise, criticize, and generally, learn from…” It is true that all sermons are not equal and not everyone will agree on what a good sermon is.  Yet with sermons from the likes of Buechner, Brown Taylor, Craddock, Achtemeier, Barth, Lewis, Willimon, Peterson, and Buttrick to name a few, a volume like this one is an excellent starter for us to “tune our ears” and “untether our imaginations.”

“A written sermon is not a preached sermon. Reading a sermon is an importantly different experience from hearing one, and both differ from actually seeing a preacher aim and fire.” Reading a sermon is more like “reading the score of some musical masterpiece. Whether reading a piece is better or worse than hearing it depends in part on the quality of the performance.”

Reading excellent sermons can be helpful on a variety of levels. Even when we reject the theology in a sermon we may admire the form. Even when we think the sermon strayed too far from the text we may still feel that we have been strangely warmed. I will not guarantee that you will enjoy this particular collection of sermons but am in agreement that reading the sermons of others is a good practice. “Perhaps homiletic discernment, like general spiritual discernment, is a gift of the Spirit. In any case, serious study of widely varying sermons is likely to sharpen it.”