That You May Believe

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.”

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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.

Thank You Dr. Dennis Kinlaw

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”

Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”

I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.

Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”

It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!

Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.

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 from Judges

To preach from Judges is to enter dangerous territory. How should one preach from Judges? How does one navigate treacherous terrain where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17.6; 21.25). How does one take a congregation into bloody battlefields where people are actively sinning against God? Who can know who will come out alive?

It is noteworthy the period of Judges comes after the Lord has rescued His people from slavery. After the Lord has guided them into the promised land. After the people insisted “We will serve the Lord.” Still, the people abandoned the Lord to serve the gods of the land. The text tells us the people “did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel” (Judges 2.10). And so “the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them” (Judges 2.16).

What are we to do with this theological narrative history of military heroes called judges? How do these stories influence our picture of God? Some questions are easier to avoid. It is easy to picture God as a creative genius or a sacrificial giver. It is something else to read Judges. What are we to do with a text that tells us that Jael hammered a tent peg through Sisera’s temple while he slept? Sure, Sisera was the enemy but do we expect his death to become part of a worship song in the next chapter? Still people will want to know how to worship the God portrayed in Judges.

We are to enter these texts even when we do not know what will happen on the other side. Sidestepping certain texts because they are uncomfortable is a sure way to miss out on some surprising themes. These stories should not be read as an end in themselves. Though they make us uncomfortable, we read them as part of the biblical storyline. We like to categorize things like justice, judgment, punishment, grace, hope, and worship. The bible isn’t interested in such categories. It throws them all into the same story where the waters get murky but they are all part of God making things right.

Making a Sermon Move

Preachers are always looking to put words together in ways that make a sermon move.  We want to help listeners recognize themselves in the story and see themselves as part of a spiritual adventure.  I fear that we sometimes overlook the biblical text as a natural place to find movement.  Exploring structure, genre, and purpose are not simply academic exercises.  This is necessary work to discover narrative movement.  In our discovery we find that sometimes physical motion helps the text move.  Other times, emotion, behavior, or newly introduced characters or places move the narrative.  The fact is that the text has a pace and moves in a specific direction.  The text knows where it is going and the preacher should follow it.

For example each of the four Gospels may take us to Easter, but they pace themselves differently and highlight different things along the way.  In an effort to illustrate this I make the following simple statements (perhaps too simple) about the Gospels.

Mark is intentional about moving us to a fuller understanding about who this Jesus is, especially His relationship to a cross.

Matthew creates space for us to reflect by switching back and forth between narrative and teaching sections.

Luke pulls us forward by demonstrating how innumerable barriers to the Good News are overcome by the activity of God.

John carries us along with scene after scene (or sign after sign) toward the possibility that we might believe.

I am not suggesting that we get locked in on a particular path to the neglect of others.  I am suggesting that the text tends to take us along specific routes.  We hinder the text when we try to take it down paths it was not intended to travel.

Reading for Preaching

Not long ago, Layne introduced me to a little book by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. called Reading for Preaching.  I find the idea excellent and am glad that Plantinga puts words to the idea.  It is an interesting book that may change the way we read (and preach).  This is not reading in order to gather content for sermons.  The author is interested in joining a discussion about language and style.  He is interested in putting preachers in conversation with others who are skilled at communication.  The subtitle says it well, the preacher in conversation with storytellers, biographers, poets, and journalists.

While God does gift some with natural skills of putting words together, most of us require outside help.  Plantinga suggests that reading good storytellers is one way to sharpen these skills.  He acknowledges that “some of the things that make sermons work cannot be gotten directly from written prose and poetry, but some can.”  Skilled writers can help us gain a feel for sentence rhythm, word selection, clarity and word economy.  Skilled writers demonstrate for us what it is like to make the listener want to keep up with the movement and become curious about the story.  I, for one, need all the help I can get to evoke wonder and get the listener to become curious.

Plantinga directs us to Barbara Brown Taylor as a preacher who knows how to evoke wonder.  I have had opportunity to hear her preach and have witnessed her ability to make a sermon move.  In a sermon titled “Home by Another Way” she tells us that Matthew’s Magi were “glad for a reason to get out of town – because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out.”  Plantinga notes that she is neither stuffy nor slangy.  He calls her style “upscale colloquial” and adds that this is a style that appeals to most listeners.  It is “formal enough to be serious and casual enough to be comfortable to wear.”

Brown Taylor does not use more words than necessary, does not give us “empty calories in a sermon.”  Instead, she uses her words to make the sermon move.  The Magi are headed out and we know this because she tells us.  They are “glad to get out.”  The “star was calling them out.”  “Out from under the reputations they had built for themselves.”  “And so they set out.”  We have no doubts that the Magi are headed out and we are going with them.

Plantinga wants to try to tune the preacher’s ear.  But he also warns that preachers should not try too hard to cast a spell on listeners with the power of words.  Not try too hard to flood the room with their brilliance.  Like trying too hard to make a friend or to go to sleep or to make a good impression – trying too hard to woo the congregation with words may be unsuccessful.  Perhaps the reason I like Plantinga’s book best is because he knows that as important as working on a sermon is, as many skills as we develop along the way, a good sermon remains more gift and discovery than achievement.