Category Archives: Preaching

armageddon

To begin with, I acknowledge (and would encourage others to acknowledge) the complexity of Revelation. Amidst the varieties of interpretations, the worst in my mind would be the kind that oversimplifies and overlooks the complexities of Revelation. If we claim to understand every image or symbol without any qualification, then maybe our hubris is preceding our exegesis.

That being said, neither do I think that Revelation is beyond comprehension for the average reader — especially the average reader in the time of the Apostle John. He was not writing a “code book” with codes that could only be deciphered by religious elites in a closed room. Nor was he writing a book that a single individual in the 21st century would “decode” somehow. Neither of those options fit with the biblical version of Christianity that I know, and they sound more like gnosticism than orthodoxy.

Based on those underlying principles, my primary approach to Revelation is to ask, “What was John communicating to his original audience?” before asking, “What does this say about the future?” Of course, the two questions are interrelated, but the if we limit ourselves to future questions, then John’s text would have been nearly useless to his contemporaries. Thus, questions of the “present day” (i.e., John’s day) should remain at the fore as we read what John was saying about the future.

This leads me to read Revelation as thus: How do these texts encourage, correct, or instruct believers in light of John’s vision of the future? Or in other words, how does the apocalypse affect readers in a personal, practical, and proximate way? In answering those questions, I see Revelation as presenting the following argument: Eagerly anticipate the Coming King because certain and decisive victory awaits His faithful ones.

While there are warning passages throughout the book, the overall message is one of confidence and encouragement. No one — not the Jews, not the Romans, not the Babylonians, not Satan himself — can defeat the King of all Kings. By looking to the end, believers can be confident, avoiding temptation and remaining strong in the present age — even in the face of brutal enemies and potential martyrdom.

 

Book - Literature & preaching

One of my former students at Moody Bible Institute recently asked me how reading literature can improve preaching.  More specifically, the student recognized the importance of reading, but was not sure where to begin. This was my brief response in case it is helpful to anyone else with a similar question.

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Great question and thanks for asking.

In general, I would say a mixture of different kinds of literature would be good. Maybe pick up an anthology of poetry, an anthology of short stories, along with a classic novel. (For example, check out Best American Short Stories or something like Good Poems from Garrison Keillor.) In addition to being enjoyable in their own right (which is important to keep in mind), here are some ways that the different kinds of literature can help with preaching:

  • Poetry can help develop your vocabulary, your use of imagery, and your sense of rhythm and sound.
  • Short stories can show you how to concisely develop a narrative. (Sermon illustrations usually need to be shorter than short stories, but the principles are similar.)
  • Novels can help you notice and develop major themes and motifs, as well as show how to develop characters within narrative preaching.

 

Mostly focus on the classics and/or contemporary authors recognized in literary journals. However, also keep in mind some more popular works (something that I don’t do as much as I should), but keep in mind that people in church are reading things like The Shack or Harry Potter, so it can be helpful to know what they are reading. Those are not always the best books ever written, but they can help you contextualize. They resonate with people for a reason, so it can be good to figure out why that is the case.

In regards to poetry, I would recommend people like Wendell Berry, Scott Cairns, and Billy Collins. Watch out for bad contemporary poetry. You might also check out Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Chrisitan Poetry. You may not agree the theology of every single poem, but it offers a lot to think about, and that can be worthwhile.

 

 

Crop Wheat Field 11

Simply defined, preaching is the intentional proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

As proclamation, preaching occurs at a particular time, in a particular place, to a particular audience.  Preaching requires that someone is listening, and it requires presence and immediacy that is unique compared to other forms of communication, such as a printed book or a video recording.  Put another way, preaching requires particularity.

General or archived sermons (such as those used by satellite churches) serve a purpose, but do not qualify as preaching in the holistic sense.   Such sermons do not address the particular needs of a particular congregation, which is composed of particular individuals at a particular time.  As such, these sermons address general needs, but never address the particular needs of a particular people.

Crop Wheat Field 11As Haddon Robinson once wrote, “In the Gospels we see that Christ never dealt with two people the same way… A sermon full of generalities hits no one in particular.”  (The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, 117)  In other words, Jesus recognized that preaching involves not only words, but the people being addressed.  There is particularity when Jesus speaks, and preachers today should recognize how our Lord and Savior proclaimed the good news of His Kingdom.

Preaching is not a relic, nor an object for electronic archive, but an event that takes place in real-time and real space.

 

 

2013_stateoftheunion

Barak Obama’s shining moment in the State of the Union debate, and possibly the only memorable moment for the public, was his insistent call for a vote on gun legislation. His tactic —  repeating how those affected by gun violence “deserve a vote” — emerged out of necessity and sagacity. Here are two quick lessons that we can learn from the address:

Necessity. Polarization (whether in the workplace, home, or church) prohibits meaningful dialogue, and those who sincerely want change will seek to build consensus. While some will critique Obama’s mention of real-life victims for emotional effect, the point is that real-life issues require a response rather than no response at all.

Sagacity. Effective leadership calls people beyond where they, but never beyond what than they can handle. Our violent-ridden and blood-infatuated society does not want to deal with the deeper issues at hand, but certainly all reasonable people can agree to vote. After all, if you can’t vote, what are you afraid of?  Using subtly for effect, understatement attempts to move people toward a response.

Apart from politics, all of us can learn from the rhetoric used in Obama’s fifth State of the Union address.  Whether you are a leader, a parent, an overseer, or a preacher, the 2013 SOTU should remind us of the need for consensus and the brilliance of understatement.

 

 

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I am deeply concerned about a trend in some Christian circles to glorify suffering, as if suffering is somehow a good thing. Over the past few months, I have heard that suffering should not only be anticipated, but gladly accepted because of its benefits. Of course, this is not exactly a “recent” trend, but one that can be traced back to Catholics in the Middle Ages. To this, I would like to offer an important clarification.

First of all, there is nothing good in suffering itself. God does not delight in the suffering of a person being killed, nor did Jesus find any satisfaction in His crucifixion. Suffering involves suffering, and we know from Scripture that God abhors violence. Simply put, God does not delight in pain.

Errantly, it has been said that “there is nothing inherently evil about suffering,” but this needs to be qualified. Although this is true for an athlete in training or a religious person who fasts from a meal, this is not normally what we mean when talking about “suffering.” Usually, suffering involves physical, emotional, and relational pain. We cannot categorize all suffering as the same. Some sufferings are voluntary or amoral, while other sufferings are involuntary or immoral.

Experiencing this latter kind of suffering, a sufferer undergoes pain, and the reality of that pain should never be diminished. There is nothing good about a child dying. Nothing good about an instance of abuse, murder, rape, or any other horrific evil in the world. Evil is evil, and it would be a tragic error to ever suggest otherwise. As it says in James 1, our good God has nothing to do with causing temptation or evil.

When the Bible speaks of finding joy in the midst of suffering — such as in 1 Peter — joy is not found in the suffering itself. Rather, the joy is found despite the suffering. Joy is found in God — in His steadfastness, in His comfort, in His healing, in His power, etc. — and not in the circumstances that surround us. Trying to find joy in painful circumstances is like trying to cool off in the midst of a heatwave; it is an empty mind trick.

We should never be surprised or be caught off guard by suffering, but at the same time, we should not anticipate or glorify it. Like Jesus, we can pray for the cup of suffering to pass from us. Since Jesus was not a masochist, neither are we as Christians. I would argue that we should pray that suffering passes from us, lest we try to be more holy than Jesus. Following Jesus’ example, we can ask God for another way and for healing from our pain.

The joy that we experience in our suffering is God Himself, not the circumstances of our suffering. For that reason, we should not fear suffering, nor should we exalt personal comfort as the ultimate goal. It is through difficulty that our vision becomes clear. We can see who God is — perfect, faithful, and safe — better than we can during other times in our lives.

God allows for suffering because sometimes suffering is a lesser danger than a false sense of perfection, comfort, and ease. God never delights in pain itself, but like an athlete in training, He can see the benefits beyond the pain.

If suffering were necessary for joy or for God’s glory, we would expect to suffer in heaven. But to the contrary, we know that the ultimate joy lies beyond the suffering of this present world. May our eyes see beyond this pain and look towards the everlasting comfort that is coming…

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Regarding biblical study and the use of commentaries, Eugene H. Peterson uses a captivating illustration to demonstrate the reason why Christians should read commentaries. It is our way of entering into the vibrant conversation, of hearing many other voices and eventually expressing our own. I read this years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. Since he says it better than I could, I’ll simply share his own words:

“…biblical commentaries have for too long been overlooked as common reading for common Christians… Among those for whom Scripture is a passion, reading commentaries has always seemed to me analogous to the gathering of football fans in the local bar after the game, replaying in endless detail the game they have just watched, arguing (maybe even fighting) over obersvations and opinion, and lacing the discourse with gossip about the players. The level of knowledge evident in these boozy colloquies is impressive. These fans have watched the game for years; the players are household names to them; they know the fine print in the rulebook and pick up every nuance on the field. And they care care immensely about what happens in the game. Their seemingly endless commentary is evidence of how much they care. Like them, I relish in a commentary not bare information but conversation with knowledgeable and experienced friends, probing, observing, questioning, the biblical text…. there is so much to notice, so much to talk over.” (Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book, 54)

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2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you,
one whose origins are from the distant past.
3 The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies
until the woman in labor gives birth.
Then at last his fellow countrymen
will return from exile to their own land.
4 And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
for he will be highly honored around the world.
5 And he will be the source of peace.

- Micah 5:2-5

Like many of us today, the Israelites felt overwhelmed and disappointed. Other nations had stolen their land and their possessions. They felt like God had let them down.

But the Bible tells us that God never abandons His people. He is always there, and He always comes through.

Jesus’ birth was the prime example of God’s protection. When the Israelites were bummed out, God sent His Son to save the world. Acting a shepherd, Jesus now guides His followers into truth and protects them from the enemy’s attacks.

So when life seems turbulent, never forget that God has provided us with a Good Shepherd. Jesus brings peace, not only to us, but to people around the entire world. With Christ guiding us, we are safe and secure.

Prayer: God, thank you for sending your Son to be our leader and protector. Whenever we face violence and disturbance in life, we know that You are strong enough to protect us. Forgive us for worrying about our troubles, and today, may Jesus Christ be our source of security and peace.

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The book of Leviticus can seem daunting, irrelevant, boring, and downright frightening. Honestly, I have avoided the book from time to time, as have many others. It is easy to overlook the book because the “rituals” no longer apply to us, and it can be difficult to discern what those rituals teach us.

After reading just the first few chapters, though, here are a few reasons that we can be thankful for its message:

* God has a plan for His people.
* God gives answers, so we don’t need to figure out problems on our own.
* God sets standards intended for people to follow.
* God knows we sin, but still wants to communicate with us.
* God provides a way for us to get rid of our guilt.
* God enjoys our offerings, as simple as they may be.
* God has decided to forgive us!

Those are just a few reasons. Read the first few chapters of Leviticus and see if you can add some more to add to the list.

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I am a huge proponent of incorporating technology into the local church. It deserves to be said, however, that when it comes to technology in the local church, we need to think through our options. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should.

On a practical level, one instance of this is the recent increase of multiple video screens (usually in larger churches) and the rise of satellite churches (which incorporate sermons via a video feed). After nearly 2000 years of church ministry, only in the past decade or two has this technology been an option. In response to this growing phenomenon, much could be said about the importance of personal contact, proximity, and lifestyle as they relate to preaching. A quick illustration, however, will suffice to show why we need to think through these issues:

At the most recent Presidential inauguration, there were roughly 2 million people in attendance. Some of these people were near President Obama or within eyesight, while others were 2 miles away at the Lincoln Memorial. Those who were far away, of course, depended on video screens in order to see what was happening on stage. They were present in person, but in in a different sense.

That actual event reveals a very simple truth: people within eyesight had a greater sensory experience, while those far away (though enjoying their time) had a much different experience. For those watching a video screen (2 miles away), there was a personal disconnect that could not be fully resolved by technology. At least to a degree, they were removed from the action. They were participating, for sure, but in a more distant sense.

Of course, this directly relates to preaching because a preacher appeals on behalf of God and calls people towards a response. We should want as much “proximity” as possible and not allow technology to get in the way. On the other hand, some may argue that technology increases proximity more often than decreasing it. Maybe the question we ask is, “How does this particular technology change ministry (compared to New Testament times), and how do we overcome any potential weaknesses?”

While technology certainly has a place and can be very helpful — obviously, without technology there would be no internet or printing presses — we also need to be aware of the drawbacks. The point here is that simply adding more technology does not automatically ensure real, inner life change. Rather than simply accepting whatever technology is available to us, we need to be careful and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating technology in the local church. The solution is not a boycott of technology, but a greater effort to think through how we use technology.