Advent Surprise

(A Written Sermon, Luke 2.8-20)

One thing that stands out in this text is the element of surprise. The shepherds were in the fields shepherding. They were not waiting for angels to show. This is not like Linus’s pumpkin patch where he goes out on purpose to sit and wait for a visit from the Great Pumpkin. These shepherds were here to look after sheep. They were here working in fields they had worked before without supernatural visitors. They are expecting nothing different on this night. But then, surprise… a visitor from heaven. And then, astonishing news. And then a crowd of visitors from heaven. Yes, of the many things that are going on this night and in this text… surprise is certainly one of them.

And then (and we do not want to minimize this) they went looking for Jesus. They could have questioned whether they were getting enough rest. They could have questioned what was in that bottle they had been drinking. They could have questioned whether they should have eaten that second helping of whatever that was. But the shepherds went looking for a Saviour. They went looking for Christ the Lord. They went looking for Jesus.

The text is straightforward about this “when the angels had left them and had gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”

Luke does not record that anyone else went looking. In fact, the gospels seem to go out of their way to suggest that people were just not that interested. It is recorded that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” But we do not know if any of them went to find out for themselves. Surely the star was seen by others, yet we are only told the magi followed it. The scholars in the king’s palace were able to tell exactly where to find the child king, yet do not make an effort to find him. But Luke wants us to know the shepherds went looking for Jesus.

The text says “they hurried off and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby.” The text presents the shepherds as eager explorers, seeking, working their way through fields and wilderness to make sense of what they have heard. They are intent about finding Jesus. The shepherds become ideal characters to talk about during Advent. We are all trying to make sense of this news, the news that Jesus is born to save the world. Advent calls for each of us to be seeking Jesus.

Yet it is so easy to become distracted during Advent. After all, there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. It becomes easier to look for a good deal, to look for free shipping, it becomes easier to look for what to serve or what to wear. The shepherds, these characters in the Advent of Jesus, remind us that what is important is to find Jesus. In fact they hurry, they have an urgency to find out if this news could be true.

The shepherds seem so noble, almost dignified. We have romanticized their part of the story. They are such an important part of the story that we forget, shepherds are people on the fringe. It is possible no one would have noticed if they went missing. Still these are the folks God chose to tell first about this good news.

My friend Layne has brought to my attention a connection with women we find later in the gospel. Women, like shepherds,would not have been first century decision makers, powerless in society. Yet women were the first people God chose to tell about resurrection. It is interesting how intentional God is about telling shepherds in the fields and women at the tomb, he sends angels to make sure that these particular people receive this particular message.

These people may not have had much power, much influence on the surface, certainly not in earthly kingdoms. But in God’s kingdom they receive special invitations. No one would have been bragging about the idea that God spoke to shepherds first about Christmas or to women first about Easter. Yet that is what we discover in the gospel about the way that God works.

We started by noting the element of surprise in the story. There is the surprise that a child was born in a stable and laid in a manger and will be the Savior of the world. And the surprise that this news was delivered to shepherds who were watching flocks in fields at night. And the surprise that comes with the implications this news has for us. Yes, this text reminds us Christmas is full of surprises – because God is full of surprises.

Advertisements

A Reading List of Sermons

Scot McKnight posted a reading list of sermons earlier today. He claims to read them for spiritual formation and for suggestions to improve his own preaching. Here are the works he claims to read from most;

Rudolf Bultmann, This World and Beyond

Karl Barth, God in Action and Deliverance to the Captives

Fred Craddock, Collected Sermons

Martin Luther King Jr., A Gift of Love

Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Walter Brueggemann, Collected Sermons

William Willimon, Collected Sermons

Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way

Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire

C. K. Barrett, Classic Sermons

Charles Spurgeon, Sermons

So, I am curious, do you read sermons? What do you gain from reading sermons? Who do you enjoy reading?

Jonathan Edwards and Preaching to Culture

In Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller shares much of what he has learned about preaching. One of my favorite parts is found in the footnotes. In case you do not read footnotes, you might want to read the following about Jonathan Edwards. Namely that he changed his preaching style when he moved to Stockbridge, MA in 1751.

Yes, the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” became gentler when he began preaching to the Mohican and Mohawk Indians on the edge of the frontier. According to Keller, his sermons became briefer and more compressed. He began to use more images and metaphors. Not only that, he started to choose images he hoped would resonate with the Indians. This is evident in his sermon “Warring with the Devil.” From the text in Luke 11 he depicts the strong man as Satan who is fully armed and a powerful warrior who has taken us captive. “Sin is therefore imaged as the state of being in thrall of an armed enemy.”

And then Edwards introduces grace and salvation. These of course come through Christ “A greater armed man, who can liberate us.” We are told that Edwards did not often discuss warfare, yet, “The Indian warrior culture provided his rhetorical opportunity.”

As much as I like these highlights from “Warring with the Devil,” I like what Keller tells about Edward’s first sermon to the Indians even more. In “The Things that Belong to True Religion” he does not begin with detailed exegesis, he does not add a treatise on doctrine or give multiple bible proofs. “He does something he had never done before – he begins with an extended story, the story of Cornelius… a racial outsider, a ‘heathen warrior,’ who finds faith in Christ.”

Edwards goes on to outline human history as the spreading of the gospel. From a family to a nation to Europeans like Cornelius. He talks about his own people, the English, who once worshipped idols but now follow Jesus. “Now, Edwards argues, the gospel is spreading from the Europeans to the Indians.” This is brilliant. Edwards identifies with the Indians. Even more, “This account puts the hearers themselves squarely in the middle of the great story of the world and of what God is doing in it.” Edwards shows his listeners that they are part of God’s plan.

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.

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.