A Soundtrack for the Seasons of a Human Life

When preaching the psalms, we are reminded that old Israel sang about things that matter. These songs travel through seasons of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, of blessing and suffering, of joy and grief, of forgiveness and resentment. These songs travel through the intense feelings that humans have experienced. The psalms are like a soundtrack for the seasons of human life.

But this is no Gaither sing-a-long.  These songs and prayers have a lot of rough edges.  Many are likely written by David. A guy who worked fields of livestock. A guy who kept lookout for lions and bears and was willing to battle them to protect the flock. A guy who carried a slingshot into a creekbed one day and met a giant on the other side. A guy who entered the battlefield without armor. A guy who hid in wilderness caves while there was a bounty on his life. A guy with experiences to match his imagination. These are songs with rough edges, prayers that are blatantly honest. And they always bring us into the company of God.

We might be tempted to preach around the rough edges and make the psalms sound more religious. Walter Brueggemann helps us to allow the psalms speak in all of their messiness. In The Message of the Psalms he suggests the themes of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. He suggests the flow of human life is located either in the actual experience of one of these categories or in the movement from one to another.

Brueggemann proposes that psalms of orientation address satisfied seasons of life that prompt thankfulness for experienced blessings. He proposes psalms of disorientation are laments during seasons of doubt, hurt, alienation, and suffering. These express rage and resentment and self-pity and hatred. He proposes psalms of new orientation as songs that are sung when surprised by new gifts of God, when joy breaks through despair, when light breaks into darkness.

Preach the psalms because we need lyrics that push us beyond rational thinking. We need melodies that dismantle things that seem so certain. We need tunes and tones that call us back to our homeland. Preach the psalms because we do not want to neglect such a gathering of composers and instrumentalists, of artists and lyricists, of poets and praying people that bring us back to the reality that God is interested in the seasons of human life.

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Preaching John’s Wisdom

Ben Witherington is recognized for his exegetical expertise. Not as many know him as a preacher but his commentary John’s Wisdom shows his interest in homiletics as well. Look especially in the sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” for sermon starters. I will go straight to the back of the book to highlight some examples.

He offers a helpful reminder;

A great deal of good preaching involves drawing out the significances of the text for audiences vastly different from those originally addressed. This does not provide a warrant for making the text say whatever we would like it to say, for the starting point must always be, What did it mean in its original context? The later significances must be seen to be moving in the same direction as the text’s original meaning or drawing out its possible implications. Otherwise we lose contact with the original intent and purposes of the inspired author and the Bible becomes an ink blot into which we can read whatever we please with impunity.

Witherington goes on to give some sermon suggestions. Throughout the course of the commentary he suggests the characters of John’s drama as paradigms of people on the way to full Christian faith. In chapter 20 this changes with examples of Mary and Thomas who have met the Risen Lord. That is why Thomas can be referred to as “unbelieving” in 20.27 yet as having “believed” in 20.29. It is the episode with Thomas that prompts a memory of an Easter sermon “Late for the Holy Spirit.” Witherington then tells us about this sermon and its repeated emphasis to the largest crowd of the year that by not gathering with God’s people puts one at risk to miss out on the presence of Christ and the blessings that entails.

Witherington draws from Fred Craddock for a sermon idea in chapter 21 and what inevitably happens in churches after Easter. What does one do after a “mountaintop experience?” One is unable to sustain that level of enthusiasm constantly. Yet, the answer is not the one that Peter takes. The text does not call us to go about business as usual. Instead, Peter is called to get on with the mission “Feed my sheep.” This, Witherington reminds us, is what defines life’s work. Not mountaintop experiences.

Witherington goes on to offer further sermon fodder as he reminds us of the problems of comparing ourselves with others. As Peter turns to ask about the disciple Jesus loved “following”, we are reminded that though others may interest us, “Jesus in this passage insists more than once that the task of each Christian is to follow him, not be a follower of other human beings.”

While exegetes are a gift to the church, some seem far removed from this role. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an attempt to connect sound exegesis and the ministry of the local church by offering starter ideas for preachers. I propose this is a helpful resource for those who attempt to communicate the message of John’s Gospel.

Preaching the Song

What do we make of a book that starts with “kiss me” and introduces meaning with the words “Eat, friends; Drink and imbibe deeply, O lovers.”  It is an obvious and passionate appeal for intimacy.  The Song of Songs connects us to a part of ourselves that is not ritual or tradition.  It protects us from getting caught in monotony.  It tunes us in to another reality and explores relationship and intimacy.  The speaker desperately desires to be connected to another.  The Song of Songs recognizes that we (and all of creation) are relational.

The Song says what it says through speakers.  Nearly everything comes from either a country maiden from Shulem or a rustic shepherd or occasional background voices.  It is erotic and provocative.  It is a collection of romantic love lyrics.  It is a liturgy of wedding songs and love poems.  Perhaps it even includes fragments from a fertility cult.  Sexuality is all over it and it gets explicit.  Yet, it is part of scripture.  Ecstasy and struggle are part of relationship whether between man and woman or human and God.  The Song, for whatever reason, weaves sex and religion together.

The Song covers a variety of dimensions of human love.  The joy of presence and the pain of absence and even erotic desire all can be understood as reflective of God’s love.  The Song is a celebration of the power of love.

Roland Murphy is reluctant to classify the Song as wisdom literature, yet acknowledges that its echoes reach beyond human sexual love to remind the reader of the love of Lady Wisdom – A “flame of Yah.”  Eugene Peterson suggests that sexuality is heightened in the Song because of the desire for intimacy that is shared by all of us.  Both Murphy and Peterson comment on the fact that the Song was historically read as part of the Passover celebration.  Peterson suggests that this helps us to connect the saving activity of God with our personal everyday lives.

Everyone who preaches or is preached to is involved in both the desire for and the struggle of intimacy.  We do not wish to ignore this, but to acknowledge it.  We do not want to rid ourselves of this desire, but honor it.  We want to grant significance to the desire in this Song.  We are not professionals trying to discover what is going on here, we are participants.

Perhaps the Song is meant to slow us down and prompt us to reflect.  This is contrary to preaching that tells listeners what to do and how to do it.  Reflection is contrary to the way that we receive most of our present day information.  We prefer the immediate and pragmatic.  The Song challenges that method and demands that we slow down and appreciate beauty.

This becomes a challenge for the preacher.  The Song expects to be retold creatively and not just as information.  How can we preach the Song in a way that brings listeners closer to the Singer?  We may wish for a phrase or statement that helps people connect with one another.  Instead, God sends us a Song that takes us into king’s chambers and out into vineyards.  We find ourselves in the tents of shepherds, riding in Pharaoh’s chariots, among the trees of the forest, leaping across mountains, gazing into windows, browsing among lilies, and walking the streets and squares.  In these places we find perfume, wine, jewels, raisins, apples, singing, cooing, blossoming, incense, and spices.  Oh for a quicker way to connect with one another.  But, we have no choice but to sit with the Song and contemplate meaning.

There are many who have attempted to preach the Song of Songs.  Probably more who have avoided it.  We tend to preach sermons to tell people how to live.  We tend to preach for practical purpose.  Instead of reading in hopes to preach “what is it for?”  Perhaps we should read it and ask “what does it do?”  After all, this is song.  This is poetry.  We do not read other poets or listen to other songs in order to find out how to do anything, but we do know what they do to us.

I am not suggesting that we all begin working on a series on the Song.  I am suggesting that preachers ought to be reading it as we prepare for whatever we are preaching.  The Song will inform our view of God and spirituality and relationship.  Perhaps we should ask that the Song revolutionize our thinking before we are able to preach what it teaches.