Better Preaching in the New Year Please!

Charles Kingsley Barrett is known to many as a New Testament scholar. Ben Witherington wants us to know he was a gifted preacher as well. Ben has been working through Barrett’s sermons and has this to say to us in the New Year… “Better Preaching in the New Year Please!” The following is Ben’s post from January 8, 2017.

In working through C.K. Barrett’s 300 sermons, and comparing them to what I regularly hear traveling around the country, namely sermons that make me wince, I have come to the following conclusion:

Frankly, I have grown weary of sermons that have illustrations which do not illustrate the point of the appointed Biblical text, story sermons only loosely connected to the Bible, and in general sermons based on the perceived wants and needs of the congregation rather than on the substance of the subject matter of the Bible, in short, sermons with little Biblical or Wesleyan content that amount to little more than words of general encouragement or some sort of ethical harangue.

As Mr. Wesley was want to say to his preachers—you are not called upon to preach your experience, however profound, your opinions however lofty, your tradition however noble, or your own logic, however reasonable. No, you are called to preach the Bible in season and out of season, when it is well-received and when it is poorly received. And as CKB was apt to emphasize, it was not about the preacher and his eloquence. If Jonah could put his hand over his mouth and weakly utter ‘repent’ and ‘all Nineveh’ responded to God’s call, then surely it is mostly about the message, the living Word of God, powerful and active, and not so much about the messenger.

Advertisements

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 a Genealogy

It is noteworthy that when we open the text we call the New Testament, the first thing we find is a genealogy. Some of us read it as if it is interesting to Matthew but has little to say to us. Others as if it is necessary history before getting to the good stuff. Still others do not even read it at all. In reality, it is not our place to dismiss some scripture as irrelevant or uninteresting. There are likely a number of reasons Matthew included genealogy and not one of them considers Matthew 1 as optional reading. This is Gospel.

Matthew wants us to know from the start that much has already happened. Generations and years have passed and God is interested in all of it. God is deeply committed to His chosen people. While people may stray, God does not. When people lose their way, God is committed to bringing them back. Matthew wants them to know that no matter what happens, He is “God with us.”

Scot McKnight, in A Fellowship of Differents, talks about “the story of Israel that morphs into the story of the Kingdom and the story of the Church.” I propose that this genealogy is an important piece of this story. The genealogy is more than information about one family of Middle Eastern origin. It is an introduction to a family of faith that God is deeply involved with and deeply committed to. We become part of this family and are included among the people with whom God chooses to dwell. We become evidence that God is involved with the world and has invested everything that we might receive salvation.

The genealogy reminds us that God has intervened in history through multiple situations and with multiple people. No matter what goes wrong, God does not give up His great desire to be with us. The genealogy reminds us that each of us are born into an already existing story. Our stories are connected to a bigger story, a story that includes Messiah. Matthew 1 prompts us to explore the commitment of God to be with His people since the beginning.  And to recognize His most serious move to be with us is Jesus.

The more we read this genealogy the more we realize God’s interest in people groups like nations and families. God is interested in communicating salvation through common forms of relationship. The Messiah comes through the flesh and blood history of a family. By the time we arrive to the New Testament we are aware that God views salvation as a relational project. We preach knowing that God’s work among people groups is not finished. God continues to work through such groups – primarily the one we call Church.

The genealogy reminds us how theological history can be. Ben Witherington talks about this in The Indelible Image. God becomes involved in the messy events of human history. Indeed, God enters it in the person of Jesus. The more we read the genealogy, the more we realize that this is an unlikely group to be chosen for passing the torch of God’s Good News. Even among the chosen, some things do not happen as we would like. The genealogy acknowledges this reality along with the reality of God’s presence. Certainly there were better candidates with more stability and better decision-making skills. Yet, this is the people God chose to bring the Gospel into the messy events of human history.

Preaching Matthew 1 should encourage a look around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. What will we see? An unlikely group? Not the group you would have chosen? Still, this is the collection of people God has assembled to call His own. This is the family He chooses to dwell among as “God with us.”

Preaching the Crucifixion Narrative of John

A harmony of the Gospels is an interesting exercise but any attempt to do it likely results in missing out on the emphasis of the individual gospel writer.  Thus, preaching should result in telling the story as the gospel writer tells it.  Ben Witherington says it like this, “let the evangelist have his say.”

For example, the first century view of crucifixion makes it somewhat surprising that John presents it as a moment of triumph.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Witherington refers to Mark as providing “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

As a side note, if you are unfamiliar with Witherington’s commentaries, his John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an excellent one to start with.  Preachers will find his sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” particularly helpful.  He suggests that John includes “many ironies and peculiar turns to the story of Jesus.”  He goes on to say that “none is more strange than the way this story ends.”

In his discussion about the ending, he introduces a word from J. R. R. Tolkien to the conversation.  Eucatastrophe is defined as a fortunate disaster.  He then suggests that the death of Jesus is an illustration of such a fortunate disaster.

Such a triumphant, victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But the crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.  We have here “the benefit of hindsight and insight” – we have eucatastrophe!

Preaching John’s narrative does not put preachers in a place to describe crucifixion or retell history.  When we preach John’s version of the story, we are preaching for the same reason that he wrote, “so that you also may believe” (John 19.35).

Romans and Preaching

People arrived in Rome for a variety of reasons; commercial purposes, immigration, and some involuntarily as slaves. Some early Christians among them, they resided in areas where other foreigners were concentrated, including Jews. Jews and Christians would have had some things in common as they assembled in the synagogue and celebrated the feasts. However, the words and actions of the Christians likely sparked tension as things like observing the law and the inclusion of the Gentiles would have created some controversy. Eventually, this escalated to the point where Claudius evicted all Jews in AD 49.

The letter to the Romans is written with this knowledge in mind. Also, the knowledge that after Claudius had died the Jews who had been banished were permitted to return. Upon their return, it appears that all Jews were at a disadvantage in Rome and that Jewish Christians were at a disadvantage in the church. Paul writes the church at Rome in order to present a Christian perspective about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, inside and outside of the church.

A young emperor Nero was not yet antagonistic toward Christians at the time of writing. Still it was important to discuss how the church should live in this environment. While we do not find a theology of how to respond to the state, Romans does describe the state as a servant. Government is a gift from God to minister justice and peace. The church should not take justice in its own hands and should live as civil civilians.

There are some things about this relationship that remain blurry, other things become quite clear. Romans does not give the state divine permission to do as it pleases. The state does not mirror the will of God. There is no indication that the state rules now and the Lord will take over that role in the afterlife. Jesus is not, as Brian Zahnd said in a recent conference, “the secretary of after-life affairs.” He is Lord now. Jesus could not endorse the politics of Rome any more than He can endorse politics in America. He already brings His own politics. This would have been a significant downer for an emperor who promoted his own divinity and the emperor cult. He would not have been pleased to hear that he was servant to a God he did not know. Christians then, could not worship Nero but they could pay taxes.

Paul the letter writer desires to deal with questions that concern the people of God. Namely, how to live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. At a risk of oversimplification, the letter deals with the status of Gentiles who are not Christian (chapter 1). It deals with the condition of the Jews, then the condition of Christians (2-8). Discussion then focuses on non-Christian Jews (9-11). The letter concludes with a sermonic application of how all Christians should learn to live together in the non-Christian world (12-15).

Romans 12-15 works as a sermon from a distance that emphasizes that Christians live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. That is why we find there a sampling of gifts that are relevant to the Roman situation in the late 50’s. That is why we find Paul bringing up the theme of holiness or sanctification. When Paul talks about this subject he is not talking about ritual or theology. He is talking about behavior. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” The emphasis is not on the language one knows or uses but the behavior one exhibits. For Paul, as Romans makes clear, this is the behavior that must be demonstrated in the world.

Paul’s letters, including Romans, are theology in progress. Paul is not repeating doctrine that has already been articulated. As Ben Witherington suggests, he is theologizing as he writes. And his aim is always to shape the behavior of his churches. Theology is not theory for Paul, but a tool for creating community. The same could be said for preaching, then and now. Preaching is a tool to shape behavior and create community in a non-Christian world.

A First Century Sermon to a Congregation in Crisis

Late in the first century the church in Ephesus was in crisis. We know this for certain from Revelation “you have left your first love”, but the letters of John are a good indicator as well. Second and Third John tell of an apparent church split. Those who have left are trying to deceive those who remain. The author gives warnings, commends faithfulness and emphasizes a commandment to love. The author has more to say but does not wish to do this in letters. He wants to talk face to face.

It is a possibility that First John is the face to face message promised in Second and Third John. A sermon preached to those remaining in the churches with the emphasis to love one another. Perhaps a sermon the author preached when he visited the congregation addressed in the other letters. At the very least, we can say that this is a sermon that circulated throughout the congregations in Ephesus and surrounding areas.

From the beginning of First John, we know that the author was strongly influenced by Jesus. The author is an eyewitness and an earwitness of Jesus. He has had time to contemplate the meaning of the words and actions of Jesus. He has had close fellowship with Jesus, he has even touched Jesus. The author, in the words of Ben Witherington, “casts his audience into the larger story of the universal battle between darkness and light, love and hate, fellowship and schism, which has been going on since Genesis 3.” This larger story becomes very real for the local churches of John’s community. This is evidenced by the influence that antichrists, false teachers, hate and sin have had on these congregations.

We can propose the following as a possible relational cycle. Jewish Christians had reached out in love to Jews near Ephesus. Some of these Jews began worshiping with the congregation and may have become known by others, perhaps even served in official roles. Disagreements arose regarding the identity of Jesus and people began leaving the congregation. Influential Jews may have tried to persuade others to leave with them. The letters of John were written in response to this situation. The letters emphasized the true identity of Jesus and the ongoing love that must be practiced by those that remain in the community.

If this relational cycle is accurate, First John may be an effort to prevent others from leaving the congregation while encouraging them to continue in love. Those who remained may have needed a strengthened identity and sense of community. The author appears to share a text at 2.7 “an old commandment.” A text the audience would be familiar with. The preacher shares it and proclaims its reality into the congregational situation. He does not debate; he proclaims and repeats it again and again. He keeps circling around to his primary theme. He keeps stressing the need to love God and one another.

The author knows that Jesus, love, and God are inseparable. This is surely no accident. Congregations must not be influenced by people who separate these things. If I John is a sermon, it is one preached with great emotion. This is evident at times by soft caring words, at times by strong harsh words. It encourages healing. It is always pastoral. The preacher uses contrast. At one point he seems to illustrate with a song. The preacher uses family terminology for this family of faith. At all points, it is evident that he is greatly influenced by Jesus. If First John is a sermon, then it is helpful to see how one who walked with Jesus addresses a congregation in crisis.

Hebrews: Preparing for the Ride

The New Testament book of Hebrews is sermon. It only adds the traits of a letter at the end of the document. And only because it was mailed rather than delivered in person by the author. Hebrews grants itself its own genre label, a “word of exhortation.” Interestingly, Paul preaches a sermon in Acts that is called the same thing (Acts 13.15).

This is a helpful way to look at Hebrews for those of us who intend to re-preach it. I rather like the way that Ben Witherington talks about the sermon in a 2008 lecture given to the Society of Biblical Literature. “The preacher does not hurl information and arguments at the readers as if they are targets.” Rather, “Hebrews is written to create a conversation, to evoke participation, to prod the faithful memories of the readers. Beginning with the first sentence, ‘us’ and ‘we’ language abounds. Also, the preacher employs rhetorical questions to awaken the voice of the listener (see 1.5 and 1.14 for example); raps on the pulpit a bit when the going gets sluggish (5.11); occasionally restates the main point to insure that even the inattentive and drowsy are on board (see 8.1).”

As with our sermons today, this one was meant to be heard in worship. We should not lose sight of that as we read and preach it. In a context of worship, Hebrews praises God for the work He has done, exhorts us to draw near to Him, and sends us forth to be faithful in our response to His work. Ben says that Hebrews is “not merely an idea submitted for intellectual consideration”, but “a life-embracing demand that summons to action.” And again like this “the work of God has affected what believers are, and therefore has enabled them to do what they must do.”

There is urgency in Hebrews, as in other New Testament writings from this time period. Members of the church are in danger of losing their lives (2.15) and on account of that are in danger of losing their faith (12.3). That may be why Hebrews spends time discussing martyrs of the faith, including Jesus (11.1-12.2). Preaching Hebrews should reflect this urgency.

Witherington is not finished with helpful word pictures. “As soon as we experience the rise and fall of the opening words… the reader becomes aware that they are not simply watching a roller coaster hurtle along the rhetorical tracks, they are in the lead car.” May our preaching prepare them for the ride.