Enough Gospel to Go Around

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.

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A Preaching Gift for the Church

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.

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.”

The Challenge of Joshua

To state the obvious, preaching from Joshua is a challenge. Especially for churches from pacifist traditions. Joshua is full of war. It is aggressive. It is violent. And God is involved in it. That makes Joshua an invitation to participate in a difficult conversation. Preaching Joshua should allow for feelings of disagreement but the text must be taken seriously. Preaching Joshua includes the temptation to make the text more acceptable or to force it into saying something that matches our presuppositions. Or even to dismiss portions of the text.

There are parts of this narrative that pull us into the story. Although violent, Joshua is adventurous. Partnership in warfare is not the usual way God intervenes. However, in Joshua we cannot walk over it, cannot go under it, and cannot walk around it. We must walk through it. Joshua must be seen in its place in the biblical storyline. Such warfare may not be found in other parts of the story, but it is here and we cannot pretend it is not.

Joshua is like an arena that hosts a contest involving text and listener. We struggle between rational thinking vs. faith in God. We struggle with violent warfare vs. worshipful celebration. There may even be a sense of preacher vs. God. We would do well to reread the encounter at 5.13-15 before we preach, regardless of the text for the day. Far too often, preachers have come up with a plan and afterward asked that God endorse it. We may be tempted to enter the situation asking whether God is for us or against us. The text is clear this is the wrong question. The right question is “Whose side are we on?”

Preaching Joshua will leave us with unresolved questions. But we can be certain about this God who demonstrates strength and salvation through strange strategies. Joshua makes us aware of the reality of God.

Ultimately, preaching Joshua takes us to the question, “Who will you serve?” This is the conclusion of the book. After 23 chapters of following this God through the Jordan River at flood stage, circling the city of Jericho, and wandering deeper into the promised the land, we know the correct answer. Joshua reviews what this God has already done, the answer seems obvious. Yet preaching Joshua admits it is difficult to be a disciple. It is to admit out loud that to serve the Lord is not an easy decision. This is the most serious of questions “Who will you serve?” This is where things become difficult. “We will serve the Lord” we say. And the preacher replies “No you can’t do it.” We insist we can and face a challenging future. Other gods are easier to serve. Other kings easier to follow. Allegiance is a difficult decision to make.

Preaching Joshua is to preach about discipleship. To serve the Lord means you cannot serve other gods. You cannot have a foot in two different kingdoms. To preach Joshua is to be reminded of the words that come later from Jesus “No one can serve two masters.”

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.

“Today You Will Be With Me” – A Sermon Starter

The second statement from the cross may prompt us to explore the type of people we find Jesus hanging around with in the Gospel. More specifically, we might be interested in the types of people Jesus invites into the kingdom. There is a substantial list of people who are welcomed by Jesus that may prompt a series of questions. Does everyone receive this invitation the same? Are others always in agreement with those Jesus chooses to invite? What tensions enter the narrative due to Jesus and his care free invitations? Is there any significance of this criminal being with Jesus?

Luke includes multiple people who may appear unlikely to be welcomed into the kingdom. Perhaps it would be valuable to examine any number of them on the way to our text where Jesus speaks with this criminal at this place called skull. These words are spoken in the context of a conversation between three men who are being executed, one of them Jesus. It is of interest that Jesus not only spent his life with such people, but also his death. He dies with them and for them. Jesus is crucified because of conversations like this one. Yet he does not stop, not even now, not even from the cross.

We do not know what else, if anything, these three on the cross may have said to one another. If there was anything else, Luke did not think it necessary to report it. Yet this conversation continues. Every one of us continues to ask for or to receive what we do not deserve. We are either asking Jesus to do things the way we want them done “Save us and yourself” or we are believing he knows what he is doing “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Again, we are not accumulating information for the sake of information. When working toward application, we ask ourselves “what are we to do with this information?” It is not enough to know that Jesus welcomed unlikely people into his kingdom. We are also expected to be inviting as well. But be aware, one has already been crucified for this kind of behavior.

“Father Forgive Them” – A Sermon Starter

Luke shares three different statements from Jesus on the cross. Simply stated, one of them is directed to the Father about the mob or the hostile world. The second is directed toward an unlikely recipient. The final one Jesus directs to the Father about his own self. While it would be easy to make too much of this observation, it is possible that distinguishing the words this way could help during our preaching.

For instance, upon reading the first text, we might explore the way the world operates. What is important to the world? What are the world’s expectations of others? How far is the world willing to go to maintain its control on the way things operate? Questions like these will help us understand the crucifixion from the world’s perspective.

On the other hand, there is another perspective on display in the text. We might explore the way that God operates (in this case, how God operates in the person of Jesus). What is important for Jesus? What expectations does Jesus have for the Father? How far are Jesus and the Father willing to go in order to demonstrate the way they operate? Questions like these help us reframe the crucifixion from God’s perspective.

Keeping questions simple will help preachers to prompt listeners to think without making the sermon a cognitive exercise. The episode surrounding our text reveals information about how the world responds to the ways of God. It also provides us with information of the way God responds to the ways of the world. Our text helps us understand that what the world (and all onlookers) thought was a criminal execution was actually an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate the way God works.

Our application is then related to what we do with this information. While we are reminded of God’s desire to forgive, we are also reminded that as followers of one who is willing to forgive (even from the cross), we are expected to be a people who practice forgiveness.